Much of the information regarding massage therapy and the military veteran population focuses on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But, along with that, the returning soldier has many physical problems that can be helped through the use of bodywork. This includes muscle soreness, postural problems and generalized stress upon returning to civilian life after the extreme discipline of military life and war.
Transitioning from an existence weighed down with the constant tensions of being deployed in a war-torn country, away from family and friends and all things familiar can be extremely difficult. Many soldiers are career military, many more are reservists called to duty and upon their return will try to re-assimilate into their previous life to discover they, as well as their relationships, have changed.
Often upon getting out of the military these veterans will go for help through their local Veterans’ Affairs Medical Centers (VAMC), only to find they are treated mostly with medication and talk therapies. These can be of tremendous help, but the VAMCs are inconsistent from facility to facility and most do not offer any kind of bodywork, such as massage therapy. Many veterans opt not to use bodywork because of this and, because bodywork, such as massage therapy, is usually not covered by medical insurance.
This is where volunteering your services becomes important. By volunteering massage therapy services, knowledge and understanding can spread throughout the veteran community. And, while helping those who need it most, you may be able to pick up some new paying clients as well when they see and feel how much it improves their health.
The Physical Effects of War
So much of the focus is on healing the psychological wounds of war and lengthy deployments. These are often addressed by psychotherapists and psychiatrists. Alongside those psychological wounds come physical ailments, not just wounds from bullets and explosives, but the chronic aches and pains arising from constant stress, carrying heavy loads, long marches, inadequate diets and lack of sleep. These do not just go away by themselves upon returning home. They can be chronic, debilitating and life-threatening.
In addition to the effects of war, the transitioning vet may worry about having a place to live*, changes in family relationships, finding a job or returning to a specific job after a long absence, possible substance abuse problems and changes in general in the country’s economic setbacks. While the military does have programs to help transitioning soldiers, they do not include bodywork.
How Can Massage Help?
Massage therapy for both mental and physical healing has been used for more than 3,000 years. In the modern era, with regard to the military, nurses and sometimes doctors treating soldiers and veterans were often trained in massage therapy which was used primarily for nerve damage, injury rehabilitation and what was then called “shell shock” (now referred to as PTSD). Both Allied and Axis forces were known to use massage to help in healing the wounded during the two World Wars.
Today, massage therapy is not regularly used in military or veteran medical facilities, having been dropped in favor of physical therapy, although there are some in the process of conducting studies on its efficacy. This is despite it being shown to help in the first half of the 20th century.
Massage therapy can offer help to returning soldiers and veterans by:
- relieving sore muscles, lessoning muscle tension and stiffness.
- increasing flexibility.
- reducing scar tissue and the breaking down of adhesions caused by wounds and injuries, especially from fire or heat related weapons and explosives.
- helping to regenerate skin and muscle tissue caused by burns.
- reducing or even preventing muscles atrophy caused by disuse after injury.
- improving posture and alignment – misalignment and poor posture can be caused by carrying heavy loads of 50 pounds or more on a daily basis.
- normalizing hormone production – the stress of war and transitioning often causes a chronic release of the hormone cortisol which, in the long term, can cause problems. Massage has been shown to reduce cortisol levels and increase levels of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins which help in relaxation and reduction of stress related issues.
- helping to maximize toxin removal from the body – during deployment the soldier may be exposed to various toxins and medications; massage therapy can facilitate the elimination of these toxins.
- reducing insomnia and increasing the deep sleep necessary for a healthy mind and body – during deployment sleep is often restless and shallow; at times it is non-existent. Massage helps to restore healthy sleep patterns.
- helping restore a healthy digestive system – during deployment meals may not be the healthiest with regard to nutrition, quantity of food, or consistency. Intestinal muscles may be stressed because of a lack of adequate toilet facilities and lack of clean water. Abdominal massage is especially helpful to restore a digestive system back to normality.
How You Can Help
There are many organizations that offer massage therapy to veterans. Because the list is constantly changing (many are short-term programs) they are not listed here. Check with your professional massage and bodywork organizations for information as well as any local Veteran Affairs medical centers and military bases near your office. Veteran service organizations, such as Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, American Legion or AmVets may be helpful as well. You can also consider gathering some of your peer bodyworkers together and setting something up, perhaps each giving a few hours a month at a veteran facility or homeless shelter.
* At any given time during the year, between 529,000 and 840,000 veterans are homeless and approximately 13,100 of them are women, some with children. More than 300,000 of them are sleeping on the streets or in shelters. Veterans make of about 1/3 of all the homeless in the U.S.