Massage for post traumatic stress disorder

By Gill Tree Managing Director Essentials for Health

In the US where private health insurance is the norm, massage therapy is a much more utilized therapy for stress and depression than in the UK and therapists there are working more and more to offer relief for war veterans and others who are suffering post traumatic stress disorder (PSTD).

Again in American it has been estimated that of those adults who have been exposed to a severe trauma, approximately 14% will go on to develop PTSD.

Whilst the experience of PSTD is different for everyone, it is common for sufferers to relive the traumatic incident over and over, often in the form of flashbacks and nightmares and experience severe difficulty in sleeping. Those with PTSD may become withdrawn and distant and can feel extreme fatigue and even recurring pain.

In the same way that the experience differs amongst the suffers, so might the trigger.

In the article, “Health and Exposure Concerns of Veterans Deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan,” published in the May issue of the American Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, it was stated that “the majority of veterans (55 percent) had a mental health concern, most commonly, post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Effects of stress on body

Since the beginning of time as soon as we become stressed, our body switches into a response known as “fight or flight”.  This is to prepare us to either fight a dangerous situation or do a 100 metre dash from it.  The stress activates a release of adrenaline in to our blood stream causing a number of changes in the body.

These include:

  • The muscles tense ready for action
  • The pupils dilate to see further
  • The heart beats harder and faster
  • Breathing becomes rapid and shallow
  • Cholesterol is released from the liver for extra energy
  • Blood is diverted from the digestive system to the muscles
  • Immunity is suppressed

Those who have experienced extreme trauma can remain in a traumatized and stressed state and are then unable to regulate or turn off the fight or flight response. This results in a constant flooding of such hormones as adrenaline and cortisol.

Understanding these responses helps us comprehend why we feel the way we do when stressed; the sleeplessness (adrenaline buzzing around the body keeps us awake), the indigestion, the headaches, the tension, the mood swings, the inability to concentrate, the wanting to withdraw, the tearfulness, the agitation………and so on.

Massage the antidote to stress 

Whilst not a cure, massage can be a valuable part of a treatment plan in assisting in breaking the stress cycle. A regular massage with help ease muscular tension, lower blood pressure, stimulate digestion and immunity, slow the heart rate and deepen breathing. Massage is also an effective tool in pain management as it stimulates a release of endorphins which are natural pain relievers.

Once a PTSD sufferer is more relaxed, has pain under control and is more able to sleep they are likely to be  more open to other therapies such as hypnotherapy and counselling.

ALASTAIR M. HULL, MRCPsych Lecturer, Aberdeen Centre for Trauma Research

has been conducting research into the effect of PTSD on the brain and has found evidence from neuroimaging studies to suggest that areas of the brain may be damaged by psychological trauma.

Results included;

Hippocampal volume reduction– the hippocampus is involved in;

  • Consolidation of New Memories
  • Emotional Responses
  • Navigation
  • Spatial Orientation


Increased activation of the amygdala

The amygdala is involved in the processing of emotions such as fear, anger and pleasure. The amygdala is also responsible for determining what memories are stored and where the memories are stored in the brain. It is thought that this determination is based on how huge an emotional response an event invokes.


Decreased activity of Broca’s area 

Broca’s area is involved in several functions of the body including:

  • Speech Production
  • Facial Neuron Control
  • Language Processing


This research may be comforting to the PSD sufferer who often has difficulty in explaining or understanding their symptoms and important the for medical profession to recognize and treat.

Gill Tree is the Managing Director of Essentials for Health, one of the UK’s leading Schools of Massage and Sports Massage, established in 1992. She is an award winning entrepreneur and therapy business expert, keen to support therapists with her business acumen and expertise so that they can focus on what they most love; working with their clients.

Essentials for Health, based in London, prides itself in being the School that Provides a Career not just a Course. 01628 476100

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