I read a great article by Stevyn Guinnip a few weeks ago about referred pain. Stevyn is a Corporate Kinesiologist for FFL Brands who provides great physiological insights about health and the body in her articles. In her article, "Unraveling the Source of Referred Pain", Stevyn lists the 3 primary sources of referred pain: nerve pain, muscular pain, and compensatory pain.
What does this have to do with massage chairs? Well, the vast majority of visitors to our showrooms and website present with some pain pattern. Whether it is low back pain, upper back pain, neck pain, headaches, sciatica, or foot issues, pain is a common presentation. That's why the customer is looking for a chair...to address some pain symptom. But the location of the pain is not necessarily it's origination. The source of the pain is not always obvious. That's where Stevyn's article come in.
I would strongly recommend going to her article and reading it for yourself, but I will just touch briefly on her list of three sources of referred pain based on my own clinical experience.
You've probably heard of sciatica and associated leg pain, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS) and associated arm discomfort, and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and wrist/hand discomfort. These are three commonly seen nerve pain presentations. The problem originates at a nerve, but presents in the tissue to which the nerve travels.
Examples would be trigger points, stress headaches, and low back pain. Again, commonly seen but not always easy to figure out. Trigger points refer pain to regions distant to the trigger point. Tight and fatigued muscles at the base of your skull can refer a hat-like distribution of pain at the top of your head, aka stress headaches. Problems in one muscles refer pain to place distant to the causative problem.
As a chiropractor, I saw a lot of this. Leg length discrepancies, muscle imbalances, some repetitive stress injuries, and postural strain commonly refer pain throughout the body.
What Can a Massage Chair Do?
Massage chairs can actually help with all three pain referral sources. Although I don't see them as answers to structural imbalances or most neural impingements, I have seen them work on specific muscles and muscle groups that are part of the imbalance, which can alleviate some pain syndromes. Even though the roller and airbag tools of the massage chair work primarily on muscles and spinal joints, thus contributing to some relief of referred muscular and compensatory pain, some muscles can even contribute to referred nerve pain. For example...
Sciatica is a referred nerve pain and/or numbness that goes down the leg but is not, in and of itself, a leg problem. The L4, L5, S1, S2, and S3 nerves make up the sciatic nerve(2). The most commonly affected nerve roots, based on what I used to see in patients as a chiropractor, were the L5-S1 roots (these nerves exit the spine in the low back area). There are different causes of impingement of the L5 and S1 nerves that can create the referred sciatica pain. For example, a herniated low back disc can impinge on the L5/S1 nerves and create the sciatica presentation. Also, degenerative arthritic changes to the L5/S1 bones lead to bone spurs that can actually "poke" into the respective nerves and create referred sciatic pain or numbness.
The piriformis muscle is a third cause of the sciatica nerve pain. The sciatic nerve either runs just above or below the piriformis muscles or right through the belly of them. When that muscle becomes spastic and stiff, that can put pressure on the sciatic nerve as well creating sciatica leg pain and numbness. I saw this in athletes who had hip/low back injuries and in woman who had gone through full term pregnancies. Both can wreak havoc on the hip muscles, including the piriformis. This has been coined "piriformis syndrome" (3).
Massage chairs, particularly those with L-tracks (aka SL-tracks), can actually massage the deeper piriformis muscles to some degree. The rollers of the L-track target the more superficial glute muscles and, to a lesser extent, the deeper piriformis muscles. That is why quite a few folks with sciatica respond well to massage chair therapy.
Take a look at Stevyn's article. It's worth a read, especially if you are dealing with pain. It might also motivate you to check out other sources of your pain if the current treatment regimen you are applying is not working well enough.
Dr. Alan Weidner
P.S. Give us a "Like" or "Share" and leave me a comment or question below to share what you learned or ask any questions, so other folks can benefit from this material.