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When someone is experiencing chronic pain, whether it manifests more in the physical body or emotionally, the abdominal area is often involved in some way. The abdomen houses many of our internal organs, as well as major neuro-lymphatic circuitry that plays a role in regulating mood, our autonomic nervous system, and immunity.
Additionally, the muscles of our abdomen–often referred to as our "core"–are critical in providing structural support for our bodies. Our abdominal muscles facilitate most of the movements we perform, even those we don't pay much attention to, such as sitting, standing, and walking. These muscles have a tendency to tense up–particularly during periods of stress–leading to tightness and the development of trigger points in our abdominal walls. This further exacerbates any dysfunction we may have in our internal organs, such as conditions like IBS, dysmenorrhea, and interstitial cystitis, and can intensify the pain loops associated with stress and abdominal discomfort.
WHAT IS ABDOMINAL MASSAGE?
Abdominal massage is a gentle and non-invasive therapy that focuses on the soft tissues and muscles of the abdomen. It can help mobilize the internal organs which can get stuck with adhesions and scar tissue. This therapeutic technique has been practiced for centuries and is rooted in various traditional healing systems such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It involves applying gentle pressure, circular motions, and kneading to the abdominal area, which helps to alleviate pain, reduce tension, and promote overall relaxation.
Abdominal massage can be a powerful and effective means of relieving pain, whether practicing it on oneself or assisting a child experiencing pain and distress.
BENEFITS OF ABDOMINAL MASSAGE
1. Improves Digestion: Abdominal massage can stimulate the digestive system, improve bowel movements, and reduce symptoms like bloating, gas, constipation, and abdominal cramps. It can also help with pain associated with menstrual cramps, bladder irritation, pelvic pain, and other conditions.
2. Eases Muscular Tension: Chronic pain often leads to muscle tension and tightness. Abdominal massage helps relax the abdominal muscles, releasing tension and promoting better blood circulation in the area. This can ease the pain associated with conditions like fibromyalgia and chronic back pain.
3. Improves Respiration: Tight abdominal muscles increase pressure within the abdomen, which then resists the natural movement of the diaphragm downward into the abdomen, restricting the breath. Relaxing these muscles may increase breathing volume and capacity. Diaphragmatic, or belly breathing, in turn, relieves stress, promotes relaxation, and decreases chest tightness.
4. Reduces Stress and Anxiety: Chronic pain can take a toll on mental well-being, leading to increased stress and anxiety. Chronic stress and anxiety also often worsen abdominal wall tension and spasm. Abdominal massage triggers the release of endorphins which help promote relaxation, reduce stress levels, and improve emotional well-being. The rhythmic movements in the massage are generally soothing and can deepen the connection between you and your child. Practicing self-massage is also a great way to enhance self-efficacy and empower oneself to feel better.
5. Enhances Sleep Quality: Sleep disturbances are common in individuals with chronic pain, including youth. Abdominal massage aids in calming the nervous system, allowing for deeper and more restorative sleep. By improving sleep quality, pain also improves, as well as resilience to cope with pain and stressors.
6. Supports Overall Well-being and Immunity: Abdominal massage has a holistic effect on the body, supporting the overall well-being of youth with chronic pain. It improves circulation, enhances the lymphatic system, and promotes detoxification, which helps to eliminate toxins from the body. Additionally, it can improve posture and body awareness.
1. Setting: Find a quiet and comfortable space where you and your child can relax without distractions. Dimming the lights, playing soft music, or using aromatherapy oils can further enhance the soothing atmosphere. Involve your child in creating the setting!
2. Warmth: Heat can really enhance the benefits of massage. You can use a heat pack first to prepare the abdomen. If you use lotion or oil, you can warm the container for several minutes beforehand in a container of warm water. Test the warmth of the lotion or oil on yourself before using it on your child. Put a small amount of lotion or oil onto your hands and rub your hands together before beginning the massage. Edible oils such as olive, sesame, jojoba, or coconut oils are generally safe for children.
3. Technique: With the child lying on their back, apply gentle pressure, making small circular motions on the abdomen. Start with clockwise motions around the navel and gradually expand outward. Or you can try the "I Love You" technique explained below. Using the flat of your four fingers close together will allow the pressure to stay constant and avoid a poking sensation. Use enough pressure to avoid tickling, but not too much
where it is uncomfortable or painful.
4. Check in: Always communicate with your child and respect their comfort level during the massage. If they experience any pain or discomfort, adjust the pressure or stop the massage.
5. Breathing: Encourage your child to take slow, deep breaths during the massage. Deep breathing helps relax the body and enhances the therapeutic effects of the massage. Also, be mindful of your own breath while providing the massage. This will help you be more intentional and relaxed with your touch as well.
6. Seek Guidance: Consider working with a qualified massage therapist experienced in working with youth and chronic pain. They can provide personalized guidance, and techniques, and ensure the massage is tailored to your child's specific needs.
7. Support Autonomy: You may want to help your child initially with performing the massage. However, if your child is old enough, encourage your child to learn the technique to practice for themselves, so they have a tool to turn to for treating their pain on their own.
THE "I LOVE YOU" TECHNIQUE
I: Using the pads of the fingers, stroke up from the top of the right hip to the bottom of the right ribs. This is in the direction of the ascending colon in an "I" shape. Do this stroke 5-10 times. You can also do small circles in this direction if that feels better.
L: Stroke from the bottom of the right ribs, across the upper abdomen to the bottom of the left ribs, and then down to the top of the left hip. This is in the direction of the transverse colon and
down the descending colon in an "L" shape. Do this stroke 5-10 times. Again, you can move in a continuous sweep or do small circles in this pattern.
U: Now, connect the movements. Stroke from the top of the right hip up to the bottom of the right ribs, over to the bottom of the left ribs, and then down to the top of the left hip. This moves up the ascending colon, across the transverse colon, and down the descending colon in a "U" shape. Repeat 5-10 times.
WHEN NOT TO DO ABDOMINAL MASSAGE
1. When there is an active infection of the gastrointestinal tract;
2. Immediately after abdominal surgery;
3. During the first trimester of pregnancy;
4. Use caution with abdominal or pelvic cancer or when undergoing chemotherapy.
Note: You should always discuss with your regular provider if you have any concerns prior to starting any new therapy or technique.
Abdominal massage is a valuable therapeutic technique that offers much-needed relief for youth with chronic pain. By incorporating this gentle and soothing practice into their routine, parents can help their children experience a range of benefits including improved digestion and immunity, reduced stress levels, alleviation of muscular tension and pain, enhanced sleep quality, and an overall boost in well-being. As a parent, you also have the opportunity to assist your child in learning and practicing abdominal massage, empowering them to take control of managing their symptoms and pain.