Orthopedic Massage (OM) is a type of manual therapy that focuses on the treatment and prevention of musculoskeletal dysfunction and pain. In addition to treating specific injuries, OM is used to increase the range of motion, decrease and manage pain and restore normal body movement and function.
Orthopedic massage therapy is a particular kind of massage, focused on soft-tissue injury rehabilitation. Goals for an orthopedic massage session typically include decreasing pain, increasing the range of motion, and preparing the body to return to normal daily routines and active hobbies. It bears similarities to other types of massage, such as sports massage, but it is its own specific, results-oriented massage modality. Read on to find out what orthopedic massage is, how it differs from other types of massage, and who it is best suited to help.
What is Orthopaedic massage?
Orthopedic massage focuses on the tissues and muscles surrounding the joints of the body. While it aims to alleviate the source of bodily pain and tension, orthopedic massage also works to restore balance to these physical structures. Orthopedic massage is a type of injury rehabilitation that focuses on the muscles and soft tissues surrounding joints. The aim of orthopedic massage is to relieve pain while restoring balance to the tissues and create a fuller range of motion.
Typically, soft tissue pain and injury is what initially draws a client in to see a massage therapist who specializes in orthopedic massage. This pain could be post-surgical pain, pain from an acute injury, or pain from overuse strain due to a repetitive motion from an activity like tennis, hockey, or jogging. Whatever the cause of the muscle damage, the intent of the orthopedic massage is to lengthen and soften the muscles and ligaments, permitting a better range of motion of the affected joints.
Neuromuscular therapy will feel painful at first, but the pressure of the massage should alleviate the muscle spasm. At this point, it is extremely important to communicate with the massage therapist regarding the pressure – whether the pressure is too much, too little, getting better, getting worse. Neuromuscular therapy uses soft tissue manipulation to help improve nervous system function and the overall function and alignment of the skeletal system. Using static pressure, neuromuscular therapists place a consistent amount of pressure on a specific area of the body, helping to reduce pain and tension effectively.
What conditions are treated by orthopedic massage?
One common condition that’s treatable by orthopedic surgery is an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear or rupture in the leg. ACL injuries are common among athletes and active individuals. The typical treatment for an ACL injury is a surgical procedure to graft the ligament back together. However, ACL surgery can lead to a wide range of complications, including continued knee stiffness or weakness, and reduced range of motion. One alternative to ACL surgery is orthopedic massage. At least one study has shown orthopedic massage therapy to be a viable alternative to ACL surgery for pain relief and mobility restoration.
Orthopedic massage can also be used to treat surgery-induced tissue damage, such as after a knee repair surgery. Research shows that massage can be an effective method to speed recovery and limit pain following surgery.
Other conditions that can be improved by orthopedic massage include carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, whiplash, tendinitis, and plantar fasciitis.
While the main goal of orthopedic massage is to rehabilitate the affected tissues, the technique can also prevent future injuries.
How orthopedic massage differs from other types of massage
Orthopedic massage is a therapeutic style of massage, intended to achieve measurable results.
Orthopedic massage is designed to return joints to their normal range of function, as well as to reduce pain from joint movement.
Swedish massage is focused on overall relaxation, while deep tissue massage reduces deep muscle pain and strain. Of course, all massage techniques can improve joint movement and function, but orthopedic massage is specifically intended to do so.
Orthopedic massage therapists must possess an extensive understanding of anatomy and how misalignment of the soft tissues can affect the musculoskeletal system and lead to pain and injury.
Orthopedic massage vs sports massage
Orthopedic massage is similar to sports massage in many respects but is specifically aimed at recovery from certain medical conditions and injuries. In this way, it falls more under the umbrella of massage as preventative health care rather than solely complementary or alternative medicine.
While sports massage helps athletes to prepare their bodies for optimal performance and prevent injury, orthopedic massage uses alignment, pin, and stretch, and release techniques to help clients recover from soft-tissue injuries and surgery.
Orthopedic massage is designed to return joints to their normal range of function, as well as to reduce pain from joint movement. Swedish massage is focused on overall relaxation, while deep tissue massage reduces deep muscle pain and strain.
Experts have shown that massage helps patients after orthopedic surgery in both clinics and homes. In a study of 60 patients recovering from arthroscopic knee procedures, researchers found that massage therapy provided an affordable, safe, and effective alternative to prescription painkillers. These observers believe massage allowed patients’ parasympathetic nervous systems to respond by secreting endorphins.
Though orthopedic massage benefits patients with many symptoms and conditions, it has been shown to be particularly effective for certain physical injuries, including:
- Back pain and spasms
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Frozen shoulder
- Knee pain
- Plantar fasciitis
- Tennis and golfers’ elbows
- Whiplash injuries
Your Orthopedic Massage Session
Your practitioner will usually begin by talking with you to learn about your medical history and understand your treatment goals. The practitioner will then consider contributing factors and help you create and maintain a treatment plan. Your session will probably last an hour or more.
Your orthopedic massage practitioner will generally use a variety of soft-tissue techniques to loosen your muscles and tendons:
- Active engagement – Practitioners use active engagement (or AE) to reach deep, hard-to-access muscles, treat overuse injuries, and assist clients with well-developed musculature. Your practitioner will compress your muscles, stroke them lengthwise, and apply perpendicular motion. It is of particular use for targeting specifically located muscle tightening injuries like whiplash and lumbar pain.
- Muscle energy technique (MET) – Using this method, your practitioner provides resistance while you voluntarily contract certain muscles. MET can help reduce pain—especially back pain.
- Myofascial release – Your skeletal muscles and connective tissues can be held in place by tight fascial tissues. To conduct these techniques, your practitioner will apply gentle pressure to your body to facilitate stretching of fascia.
- Nerve mobilization techniques – Also called neural mobilization and neurodynamics, this method can improve nervous system function by identifying a strained nerve and locating its source of pain.
- Positional release – This gentle treatment is safe for use on inflamed and painful tissues that are too sensitive for other methods. Your practitioner will manipulate your soft tissues into “positions of ease,” which can temporarily relieve your pain. By holding these tissues in the proper place for a minute or more, they may lengthen and soften, creating the conditions for long-term pain and symptom relief.
- PNF stretching – Properly called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, this common clinical and sports rehabilitation therapy can increase your passive and active range of motion.
- Trigger point therapy – Your practitioner will use elbows, knuckles, and fingers to put variable pressure on certain trigger areas. Short (10-30 second) intervals of this treatment (also known as neuromuscular therapy) release lactic acid and increase circulation.
Be sure to communicate with your practitioner both before and during your session. You will likely get better results if your therapist understands your pain level and tolerance. You can also help your therapist determine the exact location of your discomfort as they manipulate and stretch your related body parts. You can always pause or stop your massage therapy session if you experience overwhelming pain, discomfort, or emotional issues.
Your practitioner may suggest stretches or other self-care exercises you can use to extend the benefits of your therapy after the session. As with any other type of massage, be sure to rehydrate afterward, as your body will likely need to flush lactic acid and other toxins from your system.
*Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider.
Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.
The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a diagnosis, treatment, or prescription of any kind. The decision to use, or not to use, any information is the sole responsibility of the reader. These statements are not expressions of legal opinion relative to the scope of practice, medical diagnosis, or medical advice, nor do they represent an endorsement of any product, company, or specific massage therapy technique, modality, or approach. All trademarks, registered trademarks, brand names, registered brand names, logos, and company logos referenced in this post are the property of their owners.