Chasing the Pain, Part 2

By Rita Woods, LMT

Chasing the Pain, Part 2

By Rita Woods, LMT

In my past article "Chasing the Pain", I reported that pain (especially leg pain) may be the result of medications your clients are taking. A thorough medical intake questionnaire that includes medications is imperative for customizing and evaluating your massage plan for each client. Identifying the cause of pain and plan of treatment involves more than subjective and objective observations.

You must begin to look beyond the obvious and consider a wider range of potential causes for their pain. This is especially true if you are not getting the positive results you had expected with your treatment plan. Today, I'm adding another perspective to chasing the pain: depression.

You've probably seen the TV commercial with the slogan: "Depression Hurts". It's an advertisement for a medication used to treat depression. Pain and depression are closely related. They share many of the same neurotransmitters and nerve pathways. Major depression and chronic pain can become a vicious cycle.

On average, 65 percent of depressed people also complain of pain. Chronic pain can lead to depression as it disrupts your daily activities, eating habits, personality and behavior and sleep patterns. In the U.S., 32 million people report pain lasting longer than one year, often without a known physical cause. In primary care practices, up to 80 percent of depressed patients present exclusively with physical symptoms that can include: headache, abdominal pain, and musculoskeletal pains in the lower back, joints, and neck.1

The following is a typical post I found when researching what people actually feel when they are depressed:

"I don't even know where to begin. I'm finding myself getting mad over the smallest things. I find myself crying afterwards because I feel I'm hurting my family. I don't think I'm a good husband or father and I don't understand why my family even wants me around... I would like to add I have this lower back pain that came from nowhere, meaning I didn't do anything physical to cause it, and it is pretty bad."

The low back pain described by this man is not uncommon in people suffering from depression. If he were to come into your massage practice hoping that you could ease or alleviate his low back pain, it would be helpful for you to know he suffers from depression.

Remember that some of the overlap between depression and chronic pain can be explained by biology as they share some of the same neurotransmitters (chemical messengers traveling between nerves). They also share some of the same nerve pathways. According to a Harvard Health publication, almost every drug used in psychiatry can also serve as a pain medication. This is a true mind-body connection.

Massage Therapy and Depression

For the purposes of this article, I will over-simplify that process and focus only on issues that fall within our scope of practice. As massage therapists, we do not deal with emotional and psychological issues but we know from research that massage can help lessen feelings of anxiety, stress and depression. The neurotransmitters, norepinephrine and serotonin (among others), help regulate mood and the perception of pain. Neurotransmitters follow both an ascending and descending pathway, some traveling through the brain and some through the spinal column.

When the regulation of these neurotransmitters fails many things can happen including depression and the sensation of pain. Even if there is no physical reason for the pain, the brain senses pain due to the disruption of the neurotransmitters following the nerve pathways. The NIH reports that clinical investigators have tested chronic pain patients and found that they often have lower-than-normal levels of endorphins in their spinal fluid.

Let's be clear, I'm not saying that all people with pain are automatically depressed, nor all people who are depressed have physical pain. But with the predominance of stress and depression in today's world, you will certainly have some clients suffering from pain that is related to their neurochemistry and not a physical injury. Your treatment plan should include types of massage geared at reducing stress chemicals and increasing the pain-relieving and mood-enhancing chemistry. Instead of chasing the pain, you should reevaluate your treatment plan if the client is showing no signs of improvement.

Swedish massage in particular may enhance well-being by stimulating the release of endorphins (natural painkillers and mood elevators) and reducing levels of certain stress hormones. Additionally, the researchers at the School of Medicine at UCLA found that participants who received a single Swedish massage session had a significant decrease in the hormone arginine-vasopressin (which plays a role in regulating blood pressure and water retention).

In a group of studies by the Touch Research Institute which included about 500 men, women, and children with depression or stress problems, researchers measured the stress hormone cortisol in participants before and immediately after massage. Massage therapy lowered levels by up to 53 percent. Massage also increased serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that help reduce depression. Massaged subjects were less depressed and anxious and showed behavioral and stress hormone changes including a decrease in anxious behavior.

Once again, it's important to emphasize the importance of your client's intake form. Include questions about anxiety, stress and depression. Having this knowledge may help you establish a more successful treatment plan and achieve greater benefits for your client. January and February are typically the worst months for people who suffer from a specific type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). So now is a good time to call your clients and remind them to make an appointment.


  1. Kirmayer LJ et al. Somatization and the recognition of depression and anxiety in primary care. Am J Psychiatry 1993;150:734-41.