I went out for a run this morning for first time in almost two years. It was brutal and truth be told it was more of a walk and an occasional slow sprint than anything else, but it is a start. At one point, my knees felt like they were going to explode. I have never had knee problems (although, as a professional dancer, I have had some acute knee injuries from which I quite thankfully fully recovered.) Other joints in my body as well felt like I was ripping them apart. And then I remembered…I was. Years ago, I learned a great deal about anatomy and physiology as a massage therapist and one of the more fascinating quirks of the body is adhesion. In the simplest terms, adhesion is when the tissues of the body stick together. There are any number of reasons this may occur, but in my case out for my first actual run months, it was the product of inactivity. The various surfaces of my joints and naturally fluid tissues around my knees were literally stuck together. Although I had warmed up and stretched (one reason we do this), it turns out my knees actually needed some impact to really “get the kinks out.” After some fairly teeth gritting moments, things loosened up and my joints felt very good indeed. This ability of the body to adhere internally to itself got me thinking…
When I was a full-time massage therapist, I worked on athletes and the general public. My specialty became sports and injury recovery and working with clients who had HIV. Although I also used Reiki, my practice was not about crystals and hemp (although such practices have a valuable place in many people’s lives.) With a lifetime of body related work behind me, I was drawn to the medical impact of touch therapy. I deepened my study to more intimately understand how massage therapy works with the tissues and chemical systems of the body in a localized sense, but also how the skin (as the largest organ of the body) impacts all of the other systems of the body (endocrine, pulmonary, vascular, etc.) when it is worked with through therapeutic modalities.
As a western culture, we are informed in very limited ways as to how touch, massage and physical modalities impact our bodies. We think of it as a luxury, or as something inherently sexual. This is a shame. Massage therapy is also highly commodified in our cultural consciousness. When Googling covid-19 and massage therapy, all I came up with were guidelines on how to re-open businesses and get back to making money. Where are the scholarly articles on touch therapy and how it may work from a medical standpoint with treating covid-19?
Without getting into the full biology of it (mostly because I’m not a biologist) when I read scholarly articles about how covid-19 works in the body I see words that are familiar to me as a sports and recovery therapist: hyaluronic acid, inflammation, immune response, etc. These are all important in sports and therapeutic massage. For a time, I also focused my study on the impact and interaction of massage on clients with HIV come to find that massage has both profound emotional and medical benefits. It boosts immune response and supports the flushing of toxins from the body; something that is crucial for kidney and liver health when taking strong drug therapies. Oncology massage is an area that has shown great success in this area.
In my recent academic reading on covid-19, I came across this in an article in Nature.com:
During the incubation and non-severe stages, a specific adaptive immune response is required to eliminate the virus and to preclude disease progression to severe stages. Therefore, strategies to boost immune responses (anti-sera or pegylated IFNα) at this stage are certainly important.
There have been small studies on the medical impact of massage therapy, including this one done by Cedars-Sinai. But I want to raise the idea that if there was ever a time for an intentional and well-funded study on the medical impact of massage therapy, certainly not as a cure for covid-19 but as both part of a prevention and recovery strategy, it seems like this is that time.
Ultimately to beat disease, not only do we need to listen to science, we need to be willing to explore new horizons of science that are already at our disposal. If we can get past our cultural biases and assumptions about touch and bodies being somehow in conflict with, secondary to or even absent from science and medicine, we might be better off for it. Touch as therapy is as old and as basic as humanity and it is literally in our hands. Maybe touch therapy in some form presents some kind of medical relief for people suffering in this crisis?
 Shi, Y., Wang, Y., Shao, C. et al. COVID-19 infection: the perspectives on immune responses. Cell Death Differ 27, 1451–1454 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41418-020-0530-3