According to a survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 24.6 million Americans, or 9.4% of the population, used an illicit drug in the past month. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has stated that addiction impacts nearly half of American families. Illegal drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes cost the U.S. over half a trillion dollars annually, in the form of health care costs, accidents, criminal activity, and education special services. Clearly, addiction is an issue worthy of our national attention, and a worthwhile focus for any healthcare professional, including massage therapists.
Ultimately, all addictive behaviors share brain pathways. From binge eating to manic shopping to gambling and sex, all addictive behaviors are in response to the same neurotransmitter: dopamine. Addicts respond to the flood of dopamine that hits their brains’ reward centers whenever they take a hit or a drink. By minimizing stress chemicals and maximizing feel-good neuro-chemicals, massage can help assuage the symptoms of addiction.
Massage for Drug Addiction: Part of a Mind/Body/Spirit Approach
Some integrated health centers are now including massage as part of their treatment for drug addiction. The Wellness Spot, part of the Florida House Experience rehab center, provides about 200 massages per week. Along with additional alternative medicine therapies, including yoga, nutritional counseling, acupuncture, and meditation, massage helps clients “feel what it’s like to be present in their own bodies,” according to Wellness Spot director Jennifer Broadwell, DOM. In this way, massage therapy can help addicts work through disassociation.
Disassociation occurs when addicts disconnect from their bodies. During this time, addicts are unaware of what they are feeling or experiencing. Therapists hypothesize that this disassociation is rooted in addiction behavior. In order to continue taking drugs, addicts must ignore their bodily reactions. The healing process must therefore include some time for addicts to adjust to actually experiencing life in the moment, in a body-centered way.
While patients may be too intimidated to open up in talk therapy, massage therapy meets them where they are. While receiving massage, patients need not explain how they feel, nor why. They can simply relax while the therapist explores and loosens stress points in the body.
The relaxation that comes on the massage table changes the addict’s brain and body chemistry. As Tiffany Field, director of the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute, explains, “The body releases fewer stress hormones when massaged.” Cortisol and other stress hormones can cause the weakened immunity and physical pain that addicts experience. Massage can help break the cycle of stress by allowing addicts to experience relaxation and relief. During a great massage, levels of serotonin, dopamine, and other enjoyable neurotransmitters increase, helping addicts experience their own bodies’ natural pleasure pathways, rather than relying on a substance or behavior.
Finally, massage helps activate parasympathetic vagal pathways by stimulating pressure receptors. Vagal activation is correlated with better sleep and less anxiety. Overall, addiction patients “just feel better” after a massage. They may leave the session saying, “Oh! That’s what relaxation feels like,” or, “I didn’t know I was so happy/sad.” Massage helps addicts feel and heal through touch. This includes opioid addicts. Given the prevalence of opioid addiction in this country, we would like to write a future post specifically on massage and opioid addicts. Stay tuned. For now, let’s consider a few tips for massage therapists who would like to specialize in drug addiction.
Massage Therapy Careers: Specializing in Drug Addiction
- Treat lightly. Recognize that addiction is often rooted in childhood trauma, including the violation of personal boundaries. Therefore, work carefully, asking for plenty of client feedback. Also maintain clear professional boundaries, as addictive behavior may include crossing professional/personal limitations.
- Don’t take it personally. The addict’s journey is his or her own. You can’t force someone to stay on the path. If they relapse, and you become angry in response, they may feel their boundaries have been violated. Provide healing, and then let it go.
- Be willing to provide references. If you don’t feel a certain client is within your area of expertise, be willing to refer to a more experienced practitioner.
Massage therapists who specialize in addiction may find long-term work in clinics, wellness centers, and in private practice. If you’d like to work in this niche, and you haven’t yet attended a school of massage, maintain this focus throughout your massage therapy classes. Look for opportunities to get involved in clinics and wellness centers that provide massage services for addicts. If you are already an LMT, look for massage therapy continuing education opportunities on this topic. At East West College, we offer multiple classes that would be helpful for working with addiction. Therapist self-care, ethics of massage, and many other East West classes can help you hone skills for working with addicts.