Massage Therapy: A Vital Link in Addiction Recovery

Massage Therapy: A Vital Link in Addiction Recovery

In recognition of April as Alcohol Addiction Awareness Month, we share the benefits of massage therapy in an integrated recovery program.

In the early stages of recovery from addiction, patients often experience an uncomfortable gap between their body and mind. Therapeutic massage can bridge that gap, and is a powerful adjunct treatment in the addiction recovery process.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, substance abuse costs the U.S. more than $500 billion per year for the costs of medical care, treatment, crime, social welfare programs, and time lost from work.

Comprehensive treatment for addiction is the key to reversing this trend. In Counselor, The Magazine for Addiction Professionals, Joni Kosakoski, BSN, RN, CARN advocates the integration of massage therapy into drug and alcohol treatment. In her article “Massage: Hands Down, a Treatment for Addiction,” Kosakoski gives a concise analysis of massage’s benefits for this population and its place in addiction treatment.

Integrating massage into a substance abuse program is advantageous in all stages of overcoming addiction: withdrawal, detoxification and abstinence. Norman S. Miller notes that medical management of alcohol and drug withdrawal during detoxification often is not sufficient to produce sustained abstinence from recurrent use.

The Touch Research Institute/Univ. of Miami, has conducted research that documents the physiological effects of massage. Some of their findings are related to massage’s ability to reduce cortisol levels. Several studies document the ability of massage to decrease anxiety, depression, agitation and cravings.

Dopamine is well-documented as being significantly involved in addiction. The neurological biochemistry of addiction involves the mesolimbic reward system. This so-called ‘pleasure pathway’ of the brain is activated in part by dopamine levels, which are lower than average during drug withdrawal and early recovery, until brain chemistry normalizes. In 1998, the Touch Research Institute published findings that a regular massage regimen increases dopamine levels. The fact that massage therapy stimulates dopamine production and decreases cortisol levels makes it highly effective in a standard detox program.

Massage treatment reduces the tendency to relapse. Experts note that medical management of alcohol and drug withdrawal during detoxification often is not sufficient to produce sustained abstinence from recurrent use. The 1989 edition of General Pharmacology reported that massage therapy increased beta-endorphins in the blood by 16 percent. Drugs and alcohol decrease production of endorphins. While the neurochemistry regains normal balance, this is the recovering addict’s most likely time to relapse. ­­­

On an emotional level, part of an addict’s recovery process is learning to identify and manage the feelings and situations that trigger drug or alcohol use. Regular massage sessions can aid the client’s awareness of the stressors that cause body tension and trigger drug use. Being conscious of these patterns is a step toward recognizing and healthfully addressing emotions associated with cravings. Emotional release can commonly occur with massage, providing a safe, non-threatening way to manage stress and emotions without the aid of drugs or alcohol.

On a spiritual level, the deep relaxation from massage can provide a still inner place for patients to become aware of their spiritual needs. Recovering addicts have reported a new appreciation of life when they can simultaneously be present, feel good and be substance-free. Kosakoski explains, “To allow oneself to surrender to the practitioner’s hands – to breathe fully and easily, to acknowledge and receive the gifts of nurturing, surrender and relaxation… is an invaluable addition to the newly recovering person’s repertoire of relapse-prevention skills.”

Massage has the unique ability to affect all levels of our being – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. As a valuable component when integrated into addiction treatment massage helps recovering addicts succeed in their recovery.