Healing Touch in Chronic Illness

Massage

Arrive on time, wait calmly, know the names and dosages of all my medications, have a pain rating ready, check off my mental list of symptoms and medication reactions – I have become good at being a patient in the medical system. As many before me have noted, this system excels at symptom management, but often fails at true healing. Healing requires not just medical intervention, but true connection with a patient – connection facilitated by touch.

Outpatient appointments rarely include much touch other than a summary examination of joint swelling or providing resistance to test neurological function and muscle weakness. Even inpatient stays with excellent nursing care limit touch to help moving about and bathing, IV management, and more neurological checks. A nurse’s touch is caring, efficient, compassionate, and often makes the difference between a terrifying moment and a manageable one. But the way the system is set up doesn’t always allow for true connection.

I recently had a massage, and came very close to tears within minutes of the first touch. The massage therapist was not only touching my body, she was listening to it, feeling the spots where stress and illness had settled deeply into my muscles. After months of hemiplegic migraines and psychogenic seizures, my body felt truly heard by someone other than me. Because my physical symptoms are tied so closely to my emotional health, this experience was almost overwhelming and certainly transformative.

We can, I believe, draw a distinction between medical touch and healing touch. The first is supportive, efficient, and scientific – looking for symptoms and how well they are being managed, and working to make patients in all settings as comfortable as possible. The second is intimate, receptive, and slower – using the sense to touch to listen to the needs of the body.

The intimacy of healing touch arises out of vulnerability, and echoes the intimacy achieved between romantic partners. Lying on a massage table, mostly undressed, you lay your body bare to the massage therapist. The touch is not sexual in any way, but it is intimate. Our muscles “store” the physical memory of stress, trauma, and sadness as well as joy, meaning that we allow body workers access to our most intimate thoughts. As with psychological therapy, we must trust that the professional will treat our trauma kindly, knowing when to push and when to back away.

Of course, healing touch in the form of massage therapy is rarely covered by insurance, and is out of reach for many people as a routine form of care. The scientific study of massage in the treatment of chronic pain is still in its infancy (a good summary can be found here) . A quick perusal of the research shows interest mostly in pain levels – an important data point when assessing a therapy, but far from the only one.

The benefits of healing touch are many and profound, particularly for those of us with psychogenic symptoms stemming from trauma and stress. Our bodies are crying out, demanding attention in the name of emotional trauma – it makes sense that having someone listen through touch would aid healing and recovery. There are a few nonprofit organizations bringing massage to seniors and those living with chronic illness already. Hopefully there will be more, and insurance coverage as the benefits are better documented.

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