Does passive movement help?
Turns out, there are kinds of movement that don’t even require effort that can reduce pain.
In the last five years, the NIH has poured money into the study of chronic pain and addiction. Of the many important findings, one of the most critical is the importance of movement and physical expectation on chronic pain.
There are four touch receptors that can block pain when triggered with light touch, pressure (like a massage chair or rolling balls), stretching, and movement. Each has different frequencies, so when the massage chair is jiggling at different speeds, that's some of how they're trying to reduce pain.
Turns out the most critical touch receptor for directly blocking pain is an even higher frequency (about 12000 RPM), but there are other ways a massage chair might benefit.
- First, they simulate movement and move still muscles and joints. This can stimulate micro-healing and reduce injury.
- Second, the brain comes to expect and fear pain with movement. And as we know, fear is the volume control for pain.
By moving the whole body in small ways, the brain reduces its immediate expectation of pain from the areas. Changing the expectation of pain literally changes the shape of the brain over time, and movement interrupts the laying down of pain memories in the hippocampus.
Does a massage chair or high-frequency M-stim do this? At this point, more research needs to be done but it’s promising based on what we know now.
There are certainly improved effects of blood flow with both low and high-frequency vibrations that enhance muscle and joint health in small ways, but the most impactful part of a massage chair is likely giving pain patients control over pain.
Expecting relaxation, feeling control over a tight or painful area by knowing you can use the chair, and believing in the benefit can reduce pain by 30-50%.
Using a massage chair as part of a pain strategy engages the anterior cingulate cortex, the place where cognitive conflict is resolved.
By playing with the buttons and making your own comfort biofeedback, you're actually interrupting the perception of pain that should be processed by the ACC, but if it's busy you feel less pain.
All in all, the simple act of feeling good and relaxed actually downregulates the pain response over time. And if a massage chair is what does your body good, there’s science supporting it.