What’s the first thing you do when an injury happens? You rub it.
This reaction is really self-massage. Massage has long been a staple among athletes: It helps minimize oxidative stress and inflammation in muscles after exercise, which means less pain. It also loosens stiff muscles and joints, which promotes flexibility.
What’s more, studies indicate that massage causes release of feel-good substances called endorphins. When you are relaxed, blood pressure goes down, circulation improves and your heart rate slows.
While a professional massage is ideal, do-it-yourself massage is a viable alternative. It’s easy on the budget and you can perform it whenever and wherever you want.
Your hands are your most basic massage equipment. Simply rub where it hurts, focusing on trigger points—those small knots of tightly contracted muscle fibers. For minor pain, a few moments of gentle rubbing may provide relief. For stubborn knots, frequent rubbing or kneading strokes over several days (being careful not to intensify the pain) will reduce most soreness. You may feel a release in the knotted muscle, but even if you don’t, pain should be significantly reduced.
Tennis balls or yoga therapy balls (a little harder but available in different sizes) are great for rolling on the soles of your feet or along your back and neck. Emily Paulsen, a writer from Kensington, Maryland, who spends long hours at her computer and in her car, uses two tennis balls in a tube sock to relieve tightness and pain in her neck and shoulders. “I lie down with the balls positioned on either side of my spine,” she says. “When driving long distances, I roll the balls along the ‘wings’ of my back (the scapulas or shoulder blades) to relieve tension.”
Another option is to lean against a wall and roll a medium-sized ball along any sore spots, says physical therapist Eleni Triantis of Boston. Triantis is also a big proponent of foam rollers, which you can use on your legs, or place under your spine for controlled pressure. A variety of commercial aids, such as the Thera Cane or the Armaid, are also available.
If you’ve tried various techniques without effect, or if you have shooting pain (an indication of inflamed nerves), Triantis recommends seeking professional advice. “Work on properly aligning your body to prevent injuries from occurring,” she says.
Learn the Strokes
Denise W. Brown explains proper techniques in her book Therapeutic Massage—A Practical Introduction (Thunder Bay Press); adding aromatic oils, except for the face and scalp, allows your hands to flow smoothly.
Legs and feet: Stroke the leg from ankle to thigh. Bend one leg and stroke the calf muscles from the heel to the back of the knee. Work your way up the thigh with strong stokes from knee to groin. Rotate your knuckles in a circular motion; then pound lightly on the thigh with a clenched fist to improve circulation and muscle tone.
Ease tired feet by massaging the Achilles tendon just behind the anklebone. Knead edges of the heel with your knuckles; then rotate knuckles slowly down from the heel to the arch. Work your thumbs in a circular movement on the sole to loosen tendons and muscles. Massage the fleshy part under the toes, separating and stretching each toe gently. Then flex the foot and rotate the ankle.
Arms and hands: Gently stroke the whole arm from wrist to shoulder. Apply deep stroking movements from wrist to elbow, concentrating on any tight areas with small deep circular friction movements. Circle the wrist clockwise and counter-clockwise. Using circular motions work your fist into the palm of the opposite hand. Stroke between fingers, stretching each finger and thumb.
Massaging the hands and feet may improve general health since both contain reflexology points that correspond to the entire body.
Neck and shoulders: Let your head relax forward and put your hands behind your head. Using firm pressure from thumbs and fingertips, make small circular movements around the base of the skull.
Massage your left shoulder with your right hand from the base of the skull stroking down the side of the neck and over the shoulder; reverse for the right shoulder. Knots in shoulder blades can be relieved by reaching across the front of your body and using fingertips to apply deep circular movements.
Face and scalp: To ease tension, move your fingers in a circular motion at the temple. Gently massage the scalp; then move your fingers from the base of the skull up and over the head to the forehead. Placing both hands on your forehead with fingertips touching, stroke out across the forehead then across cheeks and chin.
With self-massage you get immediate feedback on what feels good.