Under Your Skin Cartoon

Your Growling Tummy and Massage

The question: Why does my GI tract sometimes make so much noise when I’m in my massage session?

The answer: There’s actually a fabulous word for that sound. Borborygmus. Go ‘head, say it again in your head. It kinda sounds like a dinosaur or some badass Transformer, but it’s the technical term for “intestinal rumbling caused by movement of fluid or gas.” 

Okay, before you go getting all embarrassed, this sound can be a real compliment to your massage therapist, and here’s why.

Your Autonomic Nervous System (the bit that governs the things in your body that you don’t consciously control) has two main branches: the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System. 

When your Sympathetic Nervous System kicks in as a result of stress, it puts your body into a “fight-or-flight” state. You’re on high alert, adrenaline production increases, your heart rate goes up. You’re in a kind of “crisis of now” mode, and your body isn’t thinking about digestion and other basic bodily functions. It’s thinking about things like revving up your muscles to either fight to survive or run like hell.

And that “stress” can be on a spectrum. It might not be as dramatic as a full-on, life-or-death situation, but even if you’re walking around feeling tense or anxious about something, the Sympathetic Nervous System is being activated. And we all know what that can feel like – the rapid heart rate, maybe you feel dizzy or achy or just keyed up and stressed.

When your Parasympathetic Nervous System takes the wheel, when you’re relaxed and at ease, your body is in a more mellow “rest-and-digest” mode. Since it’s not picking up any immediate threats, it lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, and it shifts into taking care of basic functions like making things like saliva and tears and, yup, triggering digestion.

The beauty of a relaxing massage session is that it can help the Parasympathetic Nervous System to take over, letting the body know it’s okay to chill out and take care of the business of living.

So next time your belly makes noise during your massage, enjoy it, and know that your therapist probably enjoys it in a way, too, weird as that might sound. It’s letting us know that you’re in a relaxed state, which is exactly where we hope you get to be.

Celebrating the Power of Relaxation in Massage

Or after a more focused, therapeutic session: “Oh my gosh, I am SO relaxed” (followed by a sheepish look, as if that wasn’t supposed to happen and the client seems almost embarrassed to have let themselves relax).

Why “just” a relaxation massage? Why the chagrin over that fabulous, feel-good loopiness after you rise from the massage table and float out the door? Relaxation is one of the rare gifts that a therapist can give to their clients (how many times have you left, say, the dentist’s office or your primary care doctor’s office feeling that way?), but it is also valuable and beneficial for your body and your mind in ways that go far beyond just that initial “massage head:” euphoric feeling.

When the body is relaxed, when trust between therapist and client has been built, when the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” state, as opposed to the highly anxious “fight or flight” sympathetic state) kicks in—this is when real healing begins. All those frenzied, rapid-fire thoughts that swing from one to the next—what Buddhists call your “monkey mind”—slow down to a calming purr. You can feel your muscles let go of some of the tension they have been holding, and this in itself creates benefits that you can feel, but this foundation of relaxation in a more focused, stuctural massage session also allows your therapist to manipulate your soft tissues more effectively and more comfortably for you. Further, it’s believed that relaxation as result of massage increases your systemic circulation, decreases your respiratory rate, that it promotes feelings of well-being and enhances the mind-body connection as well as lifts mood. What’s not to love?

In a recent randomized, controlled trial, both relaxation massage and more specific “structural massage” were studied as treatment for chronic low back pain. Not only did the results demonstrate that massage therapy improved function and decreased pain in participants with low back pain after 10 weeks, it also showed that a course of relaxation massage alone “had effects similar to those of structural massage. Both types of massage were associated with improved function at 26 weeks.” (Cherkin et al, 2011). The study also credited the results with possible nonspecific effects such as “time spent in a relaxing environment, being touched, receiving care from a caring therapist, being given self-care advice, or increased body awareness.” All of these are wonderful components of the work of massage, and, in my opinion, deserve to be celebrated.

It’s easy to think of taking time to relax as “doing nothing.” For some, if their massage therapist isn’t making them hurt for the whole session (“no pain, no gain”), then it’s just a “fluff and buff” and a “waste of time.” It’s okay to appreciate the softer side of massage—to recognize and relish in the specific, tangible results that come from specific, deep, focused work but to also unabashedly languish in those Swedish “dessert strokes” that make you melt. Enjoy the relaxation benefits, and walk out of your therapist’s office wearing your “massage head” with pride.

Source: “A Comparison of the Effects of 2 Types of Massage and Usual Care on Chronic Low Back Pain.” Daniel C. Cherkin, PhD; Karen J. Sherman, PhD, MPH; Janet Kahn, PhD; Robert Wellman, MS; Andrea J. Cook, PhD; Eric Johnson, MS; Janet Erro, RN, MN; Kristin Delaney, MPH; and Richard A. Deyo, MD, MPH. Annals of Internal Medicine, July 5, 2011, Vol. 155, No. 1, 1-9