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Massage and Cognition

"I used get massage therapy to address my lower back and hamstring issues. Now that my lower back pain has disappeared, I am still getting massage therapy because it helps me to be my best, both physically and mentally. I really think that I perform better at work, my mind seems sharper and more creative."

I couldn't help but smile when I heard this from one of my clients recently; this isn't the first time I have heard such a statement. When scores of people report the same response, it is important to explore the underlying mechanisms that explain the experience. Those mechanisms might have a deeper story to tell far beyond the initial observation.

In the case of muscular discomfort, the research is guiding us to a deeper understanding of the effect of pain and brain function. The experience of pain takes valuable neural resources and redirects them to the regions of the brain used in pain processing. Regions devoted to cognition, for example, are likely to suffer as a result of this resource redistribution.

In the July issue of the Journal of Pain, there was an elegant study showing just this effect. (Attridge, N., Pickering, J., Inglis, M., Keogh, E., & Eccleston, C. (2019). People in pain make poorer decisions. Pain, 160(7), 1662-1669.) When people are in pain, their ability to perform challenging mental tasks declines. On the surface, this makes perfect sense. When we feel better, we think better as well. When we are healthy and comfortable, we are not distracted by physical pain and resources can be directed where they are needed, such as thinking deeply about a problem or simply having the focus to listen intently to someone during a conversation. Pain makes concentration and focus much more difficult.

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