Massage Therapy for Military Veterans
Massage can make a difference for veterans coping with PTSD, chronic pain, and more.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops in some people who have seen or lived through an event that is shocking, scary or dangerous. These events might be combat related, for example, or involve violence, abuse or trauma.
“People experience PTSD when their choices over what happens to their bodies are taken from them,” says Pamela Fitch, the author of Talking Body, Listening Hands: A Guide to Professionalism, Communication and the Therapeutic Relationship, and a massage therapist with extensive experience working with clients with PTSD.1
This condition comes with both physical and psychological symptoms, and can include the following:
- Higher rates of musculoskeletal or cardiovascular issues
- Flashbacks and nightmares
- Increased feelings of detachment and isolation
- Irritability and difficulty falling asleep
- Guilt and shame
- Intrusive thoughts
There is research that suggests massage therapy can help veterans with PTSD. One small pilot study found massage significantly reduced headache, anxiety and pain interference. Massage was also found to be a positive addition to veteran health care in a June 2017 study.
Similar to other mental health diagnoses, like depression or anxiety, PTSD is commonly treated with an integrative approach that may include both medication and some form of psychotherapy, with the goal being to help the person effectively work through the trauma.
For clients with PTSD seeking massage therapy, Fitch believes working through their trauma history with an experienced psychologist or psychotherapist is a must. “If clients with PTSD seek massage therapy before they have done some reflection with a psychotherapist, they could be at risk of worsening their symptoms, becoming triggered by the touch, or feeling depressed or angry,” she explains.
How Can Massage Therapy Help Clients with PTSD?
Stess relief, decreasing anxiety, reducing depression1 and improving personal mood are all positive outcomes massage may provide clients. Additionally, a 2012 study focusing on how integrative therapies can help promote reintegration among veterans found that those participants who received massage therapy reported significant reductions in physical pain, tension, irritability, anxiety/worry and depression.2
Research also indicates massage therapy may be effective for those clients who experience dissociation as a symptom of PTSD,3.4 allowing these clients to experience a more coherent sense of self, which for some is a primary reason they initially seek out massage therapy.5,6
It is important to find a therapist you can trust and go slow with massage therapy if you have PTSD.
Studies have long supported the benefits of massage therapy for people in chronic pain, including back pain, neck and shoulder pain, and osteoarthritis. Research continues to support the health benefits of massage therapy for pain relief, and massage therapy can be a viable non-opioid solution for pain relief that works.7
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is described as persistent and uncontrollable anxiety and worry. A 2016 study of the effect of Swedish massage therapy on symptoms of GAD found that participants’ anxiety was significantly reduced at the start of week three, suggesting massage may be an effective acute treatment for GAD.8
While insomnia is a common issue among the general U.S. population, this condition presents an even greater problem to veterans. A study conducted in 2017 involving primary care providers’ perspectives on veterans showed that more than half of the veterans already enrolled in VA health care centers in the Midwest demonstrated having significantly higher levels of insomnia.8
Research indicates that massage therapy can improve sleep in those with lower back pain, fibromyalgia, insomnia, pain and other health conditions.
Before You Book
If you are a veteran with any of the above conditions, please reach out to us before your appointment to let us know how we can best address your unique needs. We will want to avoid anything that will make you nervous about your session, and we’re happy to discuss your specific case both before and during your session. It’s important that we know what to be aware of to avoid any potential triggers for you.
Be thorough in completing your intake form, and don’t be afraid to talk to us during your session if anything is uncomfortable, unsettling, or just not to your liking; we want your feedback.
2. William Collinge, MPH, PhD, Janet Kahn, PhD, LMT, and Robert Soltysik, MS. Promoting reintegration of National Guard veterans and their partners using a self-directed program of integrative therapies: a pilot study, Mil Med. 2012 Dec; 177(12): 1477–1485.
3. Price CJ, Donovan D, Wells E, Rue T. Mindful awareness in body-oriented therapy as an adjunct to women’s substance use disorder treatment: A pilot feasibility study. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. 2012; 94–107.
4. Price CJ. Dissociation reduction in body therapy during sexual abuse recovery. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2007;13(2): 116–28.
5. Price, C. (2012). Massage for adults with a history of sexual trauma. Chapter In: Dryden, D. & Moyer, C. (Eds.) Massage Therapy: Integrating Research and Practice. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL., pp. 165-170.
6. Price, C. (2004). Characteristics of women seeking bodywork as an adjunct to psychotherapy during recovery from childhood sexual abuse. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 8(1): 35-42.