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Massage Treatments Encourage Natural Healing Through Touch

Apr 30, 2011 12:06AM ● By Carrie Jackson

Whether it’s to relieve stress, soothe aching muscles, care for an injury or simply relax, massage is slowly coming into the mainstream. Getting a massage frequently no longer entails lying undressed under a sheet on a table while a therapist slathers you with oil. Variations such as therapeutic, craniosacral, shiatsu, pregnancy and hot-stone massage, and hybrids of these treatments, allow practitioners to fully cater to and address their clients’ needs.

Linda Belles, owner of Nova Massage, in Gurnee, offers what is commonly thought of as a therapeutic massage, but she says all massages are essentially therapeutic. “The word ‘therapeutic’ is just so broad,” says Belles. “You can go to a spa and get a relaxation massage, and if that’s what you’re looking for it’s going to be therapeutic for you.” Conversely, a person who finds neck-pain relief from a chair massage is going to have a therapeutic experience. Belles starts with a traditional Swedish massage and integrates other treatments that are appropriate for the client. She will add in any techniques for which she is trained, to both stimulate and relax the superficial soft tissue, ligaments and fascia, including gentle stroking, kneading and stretching. “Most clients initially come in with specific needs [such as stress or muscular tension],” says Belles. “However, once they see the benefits from a session, they keep coming for maintenance.”

Many forms of massage give primary attention to one part of the body in order to heal another, since symptoms can manifest in many ways. In craniosacral massage, the practitioner reads the rhythm and flow of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to indicate hidden problems. Diane Mardavich, who offers cranio treatments at Touch and Heal Massage, in Rogers Park, says that since CSF flows from the brain through the spinal cord, it helps her address the body as a whole. “If I stand at a client’s feet and don’t feel rhythm from the fluid, that will tell me something’s going on in the lower part of the body,” Mardavich says.

By working with the central nervous system, cranio massage helps to soothe the whole body. Stress can trigger the sympathetic nervous system and put the body in flight-or-fight mode. Cranio stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which Mardavich says allows the body to relax and restore. “Because it’s such a light touch, the body doesn’t really know you’re there,” she says. “It can unwind and let go.” A cranio treatment could involve gently holding or maneuvering the head, sacrum and limbs, and is used to release stored tissue damage that can occur with chronic headaches, autoimmune diseases, injury and physical or emotional trauma.

Shiatsu massage also treats the body as a whole, but is based on ancient Chinese medicine philosophies of energy and uses the same acupressure points and meridians. Paul Dickinson, who practices at Zen Shiatsu Chicago, in Evanston, says that tuning in to the body’s meridians allows him to find areas where energy is blocked or weak and encourage flow through those areas of blockage. “Stagnation can come from a number of sources—injury, chronic stress, trauma, emotions or lack of nourishment,” says Dickinson. “Shiatsu works to correct any kind of imbalances and create a harmonious environment in the body.” He says it also helps clients learn more about their range of motion and how to tune in to their bodies. In a typical session, the practitioner uses stretches, breathing techniques, compression, gentle squeezing and joint rotation, which encourage the flow of body fluids. The client is clothed and usually lying on a futon pad on the floor, but treatments can be adapted to table or chair work for the elderly or those with reduced mobility.

Some massages are used to ease specific conditions. Cielo Gonzalez, owner of Heavenly Hands Massage, in Northfield, says women who are pregnant can get relief from common symptoms with a massage tailored to their needs. “Massages help ease stress, pain in the legs and back, improve sleep and increase circulation if the woman is retaining too much water,” says Gonzalez. Pregnancy massages are conducted with the woman lying on her side, which is safer for the baby and more comfortable for the mother. The practitioner uses gentle kneading and stroking to soothe the muscles and allow the woman to relax. “Having someone else take care of her for an hour is one of the biggest benefits to the mother,” says Gonzalez.

Relaxation is one of the biggest draws of hot-stone massage as well, says Marcia O’Hara, owner of Calm Massage Therapy, in Highland Park. Heated basalt stones are placed on a client’s different body chakras to increase circulation and energy flow, and in between the toes to stimulate acupressure points. “Stimulating chakras with the stones helps to balance out the energy channels,” says O’Hara, who then applies heated aromatherapy oils with long, flowing strokes. The iron core of the basalt stones allows them to retain heat. She uses cold stones on the face to decrease swelling around the eyes and other tender areas. Hot-stone massage is an ancient treatment that has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine. O’Hara says it’s ideal for relieving headaches and muscular tension, increasing circulation and blood flow, and generally promoting relaxation, although is contraindicative for people with heart disease, diabetes or severe circulation problems.

Practitioners are finding that different modalities of massage are becoming more widely used in what may seem to be unconventional places. Belles maintains a practice at Baxter Healthcare, in Deerfield, which offers employees the chance to receive a discounted massage during or after the work day. She says most of her clients there complain of stress or muscular tension from computer use, and she can see a real transformation after a 15- or 30-minute session. She also has worked with children who have been adopted and are suffering from trauma due to abuse or neglect. “If you’ve been raped, you probably don’t want to be touched,” says Belles. “Massage can help you get used to touch in a gentle way and make it safe again.”

Trauma compromises the nervous system and Mardavich has also seen huge transformations in clients with physical or emotional trauma, even years after an incident. She says cranio therapy encourages the tissues to release long-stored tension, so the body can recover more thoroughly than with physical or talk therapy alone. “The most satisfying part is seeing clients meet their goals of feeling better and enjoying life more fully,” says Mardavich.

The ability to immediately help somebody is always rewarding, and many practitioners cross over to massage from other backgrounds that encourage healing. Gonzalez is a registered nurse who became interested in massage while she was pregnant 11 years ago but was told a traditional massage would be too risky. O’Hara has a degree in dance and movement therapy, and has worked in hospitals and psychiatric units. Belles met many massage students when she was studying to become a Reiki practitioner, and became intrigued after filling in as a “guinea pig” for their practice sessions. Mardavich is also a personal trainer, but was drawn to cranio therapy because of the dramatic release she saw in clients who had been suffering for years. Dickinson had been focused on holistic models of what it means to be on a path toward health for a long time, and shiatsu resonated with him because it’s a non-invasive form of healing that still allows him to feel a connection with a client.

Touch is one of the most natural and basic ways to nourish and care for the body, and encouraging that regeneration in their clients is what all massage practitioners essentially do. “I’m there to help facilitate so that they can walk down that path to healing, and that’s the really neat part,” says Belles. “Their body does the work, and it’s fantastic to see somebody transform.”

Calm Massage Therapy, 467 Rogers Williams Ave., Highland Park 60035; call 847-266-4000, e-mail [email protected] or visit

Heavenly Hands Massage, Northfield; call 847-400-4738 or e-mail [email protected].

Nova Massage, Gurnee; call 847-732-1517 or e-mail [email protected].

Touch and Heal Massage, Rogers Park; call 773-203-8767, e-mail [email protected] or visit

Zen Shiatsu Chicago, 825-A Chicago Ave., Evanston 60202; call 847-864-1130, e-mail [email protected] or visit

Carrie Jackson is an Evanston freelance writer and blogger. Visit her at