Massage is often thought of as a luxury, but in the hands of a skilled therapist, massage goes way beyond pampering (not that a good relaxation session doesn’t have its own benefits).

If you’re living with a chronic illness, bodywork can have some deeply therapeutic effects.

Massage Keeps Things Moving

Massage therapy can offer scores of positive benefits, especially if you’re struggling with chronic health challenges.

Certain types of massage techniques (such as Swedish) boost blood circulation. This helps nutrients get where they need to go and helps your immune system by supporting lymph return.

Tense, dehydrated tissue is starved of oxygen. This can cause pain and fatigue, and can even lead to disease states. Massage can help to flush fluid through restricted tissue, bringing blood back into these areas. It also helps to reset the nervous system, which can be dulled or on high alert when tissues become dehydrated or chronically “tight.”

By helping your nervous system shift into a more relaxed, massage can also support healthy sleep patterns.

Certain types of work can supportive digestive and bowel function.

Also, receiving positive touch from a caring practitioner can have multiple feel-good benefits. Studies show massage can decrease the depression and anxiety that can accompany protracted illness.

Choose Your Modality

Swedish massage is the modality most people conjure when they think of bodywork. That’s largely because it forms most therapists’ basic education (at least in North America). Swedish is often referred to as “spa massage,” but that’s really selling this versatile style short.

Swedish massage is favored by athletes for pre- and post-event work, implemented in hospitals and other care facilities to provide physical and emotional comfort and healing support and yes, it’s often used in spas for relaxation.

Most consumers think of deep tissue as a heavy-handed style that forces tension from tissue. The name of this modality is unfortunately misleading, however.

Deep tissue doesn’t literally mean “deep in the tissue,” but rather denotes a set of massage techniques used for focused work. Deep tissue work can actually have a light to moderate application.

For many experiencing chronic pain, any modality that increases the body’s workload (such as a heavy-handed deep tissue session) could cause problems.

You want the bodywork to support the system, not overburden it.

In fact, studies support the idea that for most conditions, light to moderate touch is actually more effective.

A more specialized approach, lymphatic drainage is an extremely gentle technique that can be highly effective at reducing swelling and can support the lymph system. It can also support a major detox event, such as a Herxheimer Reaction, where your body is struggling to clear toxic load.

It’s an approach that can be particularly with people who’d have one or more lymph nodes removed.

Another modality that can prove extremely effective yet has light touch is craniosacral therapy. It’s designed to relieve pain and tensions in the body through subtle manipulations of the skull, spine and pelvis.

But perhaps more important than the type of bodywork you choose is the person you choose to do it.

Choosing A Therapist

The primary benefit of massage therapy is helping you shift your nervous system from the sympathetic (fight-flight-freeze) to parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) state, which is where healing happens.

If you’re working with a therapist who you’re not comfortable with, your body’s not going to shift. No shifting, no healing.

What makes a great therapist is somewhat subjective. Look for one you feel comfortable with, who shows an understanding of appropriate pressure and asks you for feedback.

You want someone who is willing to work with you to create sessions that are truly helpful. And on your side, be willing to speak up and say if something isn’t working for you.

In terms of experience, you don’t have to find a therapist with 20 years of experience and 12 certifications. A newer therapist with solid training in the basics could have excellent skills.

But if you’re dealing with a chronic illness, it’s good to have someone with a solid understanding of what you and your body are facing.

Referrals are a great place to start in finding that perfect fit. Ask your health care provider or others you know who are dealing with the same or a similar illness. A social media post or consulting Yelp reviews can also be helpful.

A Caution About Meds

Some conditions and medications carry with them special cautions with it comes to what type of massage is indicated.

For example, if you’re taking pain meds, it can affect how your body can sense the therapist’s touch. If you lack the ability to give accurate feedback, the therapist could accidentally overwork you.

A skilled, well-educated therapist will take the time to go over your health history in detail during your intake. (If they don’t, and instead only provide a cursory or no review of your health, it’s a red flag.)

It’s important that you disclose your full health history, including medications, to your therapist. If there are several medications, it’s a great idea to bring a list you can give to the therapist. (They might need an extra minute to look up one or more of the meds if there are some they don’t know offhand.)

Still, no amount of massage therapy is going to help in the longer term if you’re not minding your basic body care.

Massage therapy is most effective when it’s supported by rest, proper hydration, movement (if possible depending on your status) and good nutrition.