By Heyward Ewart, III, Ph.D.
This article was first published in the May,2002 issue of e-touch, a massage newsletter and is American Massage Therapy Association. It may not be reprinted without permission.
More than 20 years ago, I noticed an obscure little article in an esoteric journal that discussed this subject-massage and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I cannot find a reference to it, although I have searched everywhere, and none of my colleagues have ever heard of it. If the author will come forward, due reference and credit will be given. What I do know is that the premise of that piece is very true.
In taking that small amount of information and adding my experience with children through the years, I have come to believe that this condition is physiological and not psychological. It has become a "garbage-can" diagnosis overly used when an evaluator has not looked for causality, so that many children with this label do not have this condition at all. Instead, some are suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder as a result of child abuse.
Through my research, though no exact cause exists, ADHD is thought to stem from sensory deprivation or restriction of movement during the period from infancy to about 3 years old. I have yet to find a case of ADHD where a child has not either undergone some necessary medical procedure, or suffered abuse resulting in one or more of the major senses being blocked or a prolonged period of immobilization.
Interfering with the perceptive senses or movement produced an "overcharged" central nervous system, whereby energy continues to build until there is an outlet. The result is that movement and perceptual stimulation are required in excess. If these are not supplied at frequent intervals, the child becomes irritable, then angry and finally enraged. Besides hyperactivity, the constellation of symptoms includes being stubborn, having a "short fuse" when it comes to temper, defiance, and a strong liking for very loud music or other noise, as well as every form of physical stimulation, including touch. Such would include very hot or very cold showers, back rubs, and activities that stimulate any of the senses, such as video games, sports and most any kind of exercise. Some of the leading causes may be surgery during infancy that requires strapping the baby down, orthopedic corrective devices, such as bars, prolonged confinement to an incubator, and even a difficult delivery, whereby the baby is trapped in the birth canal. Tubes in the ears to correct hearing infections, procedures to the eyes, and immobilization of any part of the body or the entire body are also included. Because understimulation may be a cause, and excess energy is the result, I have found that the stimulation of massage for children with ADHD is extremely effective. While benefits have been seen in my practice for massaging young kids with ADHD, research also suggests positive effects for adolescents. Well-known researcher Tiffany Field, executive director of the Miami-based Touch Research Institutes (TRI), and her team of researchers have uncovered positive findings of massage on adolescents with ADHD. For the study, which was published in the Spring 1998 issue of Adolescence magazine, the researchers selected 28 adolescents, 14 of whom received a 15-minute massage session for 10 consecutive school days, and 14 of whom received 15 minutes of relaxation therapy for 10 consecutive school days. Assessment of the participants revealed that those who received massage were happier, and teachers noticed the positive change in these students.
In a more recent TRI study, in review, researchers selected children to receive massage twice a week for a month to test the more long-term effect of massage and ADHD. Results showed that students were more productive in class, and their teachers rated them less hyperactive.
As far as a particular massage technique that has been effective for ADHD, Karen Donahue, M.Ac., Lic.Ac., has found benefits of using traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture, tai chi, qigong and tuina massage. In her article entitled "The Treatment Of ADHA," Donahue writes, "Whether the root cause is behavioral or neurological, TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) looks at the body, mind and spirit as one interactive system. When the body and mind are in harmony, the spirit is calm and the person is able to perform to potential."
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association, affects an estimated 3 to 5 percent of children, and the few studies on massage and ADHD that exist suggest positive results, which will only be strengthened with future research in this area.
~ Heyward Ewart, III, Ph.D., sought training in neuromuscular massage after a 20-year career as a counselor, priest and finally a licensed psychologist. He attended the Greenville, South Carolina, School of Therapeutic Massage, where he graduated summa cum laude in 2001. With a degree in neuropsychology, he presently works for The Liberty Hematology Oncology Center in Sumter, South Carolina, where he specializes in pain management for chemotherapy, sickle- cell and HIV patients, as well as hyperactive children.