David Lies, a massage therapist in Wichita, Kansas, remembers his honeymoon well: The lush, nascent flowers and trees of early May in Eureka Springs, Arkansas; time relaxing with his new wife, Linda; the rustic honeymoon cottage—and his allergies, triggered by the colorful blooms around him. “I used to say that I was allergic to everything under the sun,” Lies says.
Lies discovered an unexpected ally in his allergy battle: The honeymoon cottage’s landlord, who was also a massage therapist. “He offered to give my wife and me massages,” says Lies, who finally said yes when his swollen eyes, nonstop sneezing and coughing fits started to put a damper on his honeymoon.
Lies remembers the horrible pain as the therapist dug his elbow into his back along the muscles and trigger points long contracted from coughing, sneezing and related stress. Just as he was about to cry uncle, the therapist removed his elbow—or so
Lies thought as he thanked him. His wife, who was watching the session, laughed. “He hasn’t moved his elbow at all,” she told Lies. The muscles had simply finally relaxed.
After the massage, Lies made it through the week with just a few sniffles, his first nondrug-induced relief in years. He returned to Wichita inspired, enrolling in massage school and eventually opening A Servant’s Hands, a full-service massage therapy clinic with a special interest in allergies.
Not a bad specialty these days, it turns out.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthmas and Immunology, allergies affect more than 50 million Americans, making it the country’s fifth most chronic disease, third among children.
We spend around 7.9 billion dollars a year on treatment—about 4.5 million on direct care and 3.4 billion on indirect care, including lost work.
Allergies are, in the simplest sense, the body overachieving. “Your immune system is reacting to things it shouldn’t be reacting to,” says Leonard Bielory, MD, director of the Asthma & Allergy Research Center at New Jersey Medical School. “Your body goes on high alert against normally innocuous substances, like cat hair, pollen or peanuts.”
In this reaction the body’s mast cells, which are loaded with chemical-like histamines and other granules, break open and release these substances, which in turn hurt the body. The result can be everything from life-threatening anaphylactic shock to the more benign runny nose, foggy thinking and low-grade chronic cough. Of course, you can suffer in many other ways as well, including gas and bloating, eczema, sinusitis, earaches and headaches, and even joint pain, migraines and depression.
Relaxing the Symptoms
Many Americans rely primarily on conventional treatments, including antihistamines and steroids, both of which can have some adverse side effects. Massage therapists, however, can help relieve some allergy symptoms by reducing stress, increasing circulation, releasing muscle tension and reprogramming the body’s panic reaction, which can exacerbate symptoms.
“It’s not to take away from the biological, inflammatory component of the disorder,” says Rosalind Wright, MD, a pulmonist on staff at the Harvard Medical School. “But if you use complementary modalities, including massage therapy, you could optimize the results.”
Few studies researching massage therapy and allergy relief exist, but we do know massage helps with stress, as shown in the 1992 Touch Research Institute study where 30-minute body massages on depressed adolescents decreased saliva cortisol levels.
And stress definitely impacts allergies. A 2008 Harvard Medical School study co-authored by Wright showed that mothers-to-be who expose their unborn children to stress may increase these kids’ vulnerability to allergies and asthma.
Wright says that these stressors act like “social pollutants” breathed through the body, influencing the body’s immune response. “Just as you can breathe in an allergen like dust mites or ragweed, you can breathe in stress,” she says. “You take it into your body and it operates in similar types of pathways.”
So just getting clients to relax may help their allergies. “Most experienced massage therapists know the immediate relief from sinus congestion that can result from just lying face down,” Lies says. This position gives you a chance to work on the upper back and shoulders, where many sinus trigger points are located.
Getting More Specific
Roy Desjarlais, a massage and craniosacral therapist, and vice president of clinical services at the Upledger Institute, says that calming the muscles around the clavicle and neck area is also helpful in mitigating the fight-or-flight response brought on by allergies, along with its concomitant symptoms, such as hiking the shoulders, holding the breath and tightening the throat. “Anything that works with upper chest and neck will … engage an area relating to the reticular alarm system, which is the system in our autonomic nervous system that responds to fear and anxiety,” he says.
Specifically, Desjarlais recommends working the sternoclemastoid muscle, pectoralis major and minor, the subclavius and all the posterior neck muscles going into the occipital muscle. You choose the type of strokes, he says, as long as they’re calming. “This is where the art of massage comes in,” he adds.
Desjarlais also recommends referring to a simple reflexology chart to activate the trigger points on the feet for the thymus gland, the master gland for the immune system, and pituitary gland, the master gland for the endocrine system.
The head offers its own relief, too.
“When muscles tighten up around the head, it restricts blood flow and closes up sinuses,” says Lies. A simple head massage can help loosen these muscles.
Another technique that can help allergies is lymphatic massage, which can help reduce inflammation, remove toxins and support the immune system. “The lymph system is the system best suited to move those accumulated protein molecules and other wastes out of the area,” says Roger Hughes, a therapist and certified Dr. Vodder Method of Manual Lymph Drainage practitioner.
He’s had successes over the years working with long-time allergy sufferers, including children with food allergies who also have frequent ear infections. In the Vodder method, the strokes are light. “Forty percent of the lymphatic system is right under the skin,” Hughes explains. “Therefore, light, pleasurable, rhythmic touch is the mainstay of the Vodder method.”
Also, one-third of the lymph nodes are in the neck. Hughes begins his sessions there, where he says he’s “opening the lymph faucet.” Although Hughes encourages therapists to honor the practice of referring to certified practitioners of lymph drainage for expert treatment, “working with mindfulness, presence and intention is more powerful than people realize,” he says. “You’re helping that person let go of himself, and let go of unconscious tension. This, in turn, will let all the fluids in the body—the blood, lymph and nerves—flow more easily.”
Desjarlais agrees, and says setting an intention is a practice like meditation—to continually bring yourself back to the issue at hand. It’s a practice he brings to his work in craniosacral therapy, an osteopathic discipline that uses specific techniques to move the cerebral spinal fluid and to calm the nervous system.
Other craniosacral techniques impact the immune system through the endocrine glands and increase overall fluid exchange, all very helpful in allergy relief. Craniosacral therapy also helps to change some deeply patterned responses.
“Sometimes the reason we react to an allergen is habitual—we get grooved neurologically and physiologically, and sometimes when we break these groove reaction cycles, the body doesn’t react to the allergens anymore,” says Desjarlais.
This happened to Desjarlais himself, who had a longtime allergy to shellfish that caused his throat to swell and his stomach to cramp.
Now, he can eat shellfish with only a mild scratchy throat afterward.
Part of the beauty of craniosacral work is that even taking beginning courses can allow you to incorporate some of the techniques into your practice. “Anyone can apply it to their own work,” says Desjarlais.
Setting an Example
Massage therapists can also help clients with allergies by modeling good lifestyle choices, and by educating clients on the same.
“I do massage therapy for pain relief,” says Jordan Rothstein, owner of the Body Technician in Berkeley, California. “However, I view my job as bigger than massage therapy—it’s whatever will help the person get out of pain, within appropriate limits.”
In his experience, one common, unrecognized cause of pain is food allergies or intolerances, which can cause inflammation and muscle tension. To get the message through, Rothstein uses patience and repetition.
He might ask his clients to read his website, for example, which contains information on food sensitivities.
He also hands out a food information sheet that encourages his clients to self-screen for these same allergies and sensitivities.
According to Amy Lanou, PhD, an assistant professor in health and wellness at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, there are two types of allergic responses from food.
One, a food allergy, can progress to anaphylactic shock. “However, a fairly large proportion of the population has a lower level of immune response to common foods, including wheat, gluten, milk, eggs and other dairy products,” she says.
According to Lanou, the interesting thing about these reactions is that they don’t send you to the hospital. “But they do increase your response to other allergens,” she explains. For example, if you have a low-grade response to gluten and you consume it on a regular basis, your response to other allergies, such as pet dander or pollen, will be aggravated. “Those foods could make your immune system cranky and agitated,” she says.
Stephen Wangen, a Seattle-based naturopath and medical director for the Center for Food Allergies, says these types of food sensitivities are rampant, and often unrecognized. He believes massage therapists can play a helpful role in alerting clients. “First of all,” he says, “massage therapy is always valuable. However, if massage therapists would recognize that there is a very big potential for the basic foods that clients are eating to be triggering some of their symptoms, then the massage work can go deeper and you can make better long-term progress with clients instead of starting over and over again. I’ve seen it happen many times.” And, dear therapist, heal thyself.
“You need to take care of your own allergic reactions,” says Hughes. “If the person on the table senses any tension in the therapist that can go right into the receiver’s body.” That means receiving regular massage work yourself, following a healthy lifestyle and living a low-stress life.
This is what Lies has done, and his sneezing, coughing, wheezing days from all those years ago in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, are almost over. “You have to know how to take care of yourself,” he says. “And realize that we already have the resources within our own bodies … For the majority of people, massage will help.”
Keeping Your Massage Office Allergen Free
Susan Polano, CMP, owner of Oceana Massage in Vancouver, British Columbia, says that the various chemicals we’re exposed to in our everyday lives, including room sprays, soaps, shampoos and cleaning supplies, can exacerbate allergic responses.
“There are so many chemicals in these products, and they build up in our systems, causing all sorts of things that we attribute to the natural wear and tear of life,” says Polano. Some particularly bad culprits include air fresheners, carpet shampoos, mold and mildew cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners and laundry products.
1. Recommend—and model—organic products in your office. You can use essential oils in your laundry, and always use therapeutic grade, organic oils. You can use gentle, natural cleaners for your floors and furniture.
2. Install an air purifier and water purifier in your HOME or office.
Alternatively, keep air-purifying plants, such as spider plants, holy basil, bamboo plants, Boston fern and the peace lily in your space.
3. Keep your office well-dusted. Don’t forget the walls, shelves and window ledges.
4. Watch what you wear. Perfumes, deodorants and moisturizers can all irritate sensitive noses. Try natural alternatives, or nothing at all! Polano uses a few drops of rosemary in her natural shampoo.
And of course, if you still smoke, this is one more reason to quit. Not only will you help yourself, you’ll protect your sensitive clients from lingering smells on your body and clothes.