Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Massage Therapy

PTSD graphic

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a very common and complex disorder. It is characterized by high levels of stress and anxiety following a traumatic event. The event may or may not include physical injury or harm; even a minor injury or a psychologically disturbing event may contribute to symptoms.

Studies show that massage therapy can decrease stress levels by soothing the over stimulated nervous system and providing a safe experience through positive touch.

A traumatic life event will send your nervous system into a state of increased sympathetic nervous system (SNS) firing. This is the body’s natural response when it is signaled to expend more energy, or to defend itself. Once the body knows it is out of harms way and safe to relax, it will naturally decrease the firing of the SNS. In the case of PTSD, the nervous system remains on alert. The nervous system has not yet received the message that everything is okay. The body is still re-living the event, even though it is presently safe.

The onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may be immediate, or they may begin months after the event. Common symptoms include persistent anxiety, sleep disturbances, flashbacks to the event, nightmares, panic attacks, inability to cope with everyday life demands, difficulty with relationships, depression, problems concentrating, headaches and heart palpitations.

How can Massage Therapy help Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Massage therapy can help primarily by decreasing the firing of the SNS, or increasing the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS serves to conserve energy and maintain healthy organ functioning. Positive touch is a powerful tool in reassuring the body is safe and secure as well as for activating the PNS.

The effects of whiplash from a motor vehicle accident (MVA) may leave you with a stiff neck and experiencing pain. The effects of the psychological trauma of the accident may be more difficult to initially palpate. There are many other traumatic life events that may be less physically obvious than an MVA. Coming out of an emotionally abusive relationship or the sudden loss of a loved one are some examples of stressors that may be prolonged and lead to PTSD symptoms. The body holds trauma of any kind, physical or psychological, in all of its cells and tissues.

Anxiety is often coupled with some sort of holding pattern in the body. Some people may clench their jaw or grind their teeth, others may unconsciously hold their gluteal or abdominal muscles tight. Anxiety and panic attacks will also lead to shallow breathing, and subsequently shortened and tightened muscles of respiration. This may be felt as tightness in the chest and solar plexus as well as around the base of the neck.

Keep in mind that we live in a culture that values high work ethic and productivity, and that as a culture we tend to lack or de-value appropriate self care habits. If you have suffered from trauma in your life, take the time and the necessary steps towards healing yourself – because you can.

We are extremely sensitive and intelligent beings, if something feels out of harmony in your physical and/or energetic body, use your community for support – massage therapists are experts at harmonizing the soft tissue and nervous system!


Catherine Cavallaro, Goodman, and Fuller Kenda. Pathology – Implications for the Physical Therapist. Third Edition. St. Louis: Saunders, 2009. Print.

Fiona , Rattray, and Ludwig Linda. Clinical Massage Therapy. Toronto, Ontraio: Talus Incorporated, 2000. Print.