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Massage therapy helps with pain, stress and more

Erin Hurme, of Amityville Acupuncture & Wellness, massages

Erin Hurme, of Amityville Acupuncture & Wellness, massages a patient, Sept. 16, 2014. Massage therapy brings various levels of treatment beyond the common understanding of relaxation. Credit: Johnny Milano

Professional massages aren't just for stress relief anymore. Massage therapy's reputation has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. Besides treating stress, sore muscles and sports injuries, studies have suggested that massage therapy can help with digestive disorders, fibromyalgia, headaches, nerve pain and joint pain, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Here are five surprising facts about massage therapy.

1. Massage just might clear your sinuses

At least one Long Island massage therapist says she often surprises patients by telling them that massage can give them relief from congestion.

"Massage can reduce your stress and unclog your ear while you're at it," said Erin Hurme, who owns Amityville Acupuncture & Wellness. "You can work on someone's head for an hour and focus on draining the sinuses by loosening muscles by manipulating the face and the skull. That's a big one that people come in for, since it's so beneficial -- especially at this time of year, when allergies are common."

2. Massage can ease some cancer symptoms

"Massage therapy does not treat cancer in any way, shape or form," said Barrie Cassileth, founding chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. However, "it relieves symptoms associated with cancer and cancer treatment, such as stress and sore muscles," she said. "It is indeed relaxing, a very important treatment that works well not only for cancer patients but also for many in the general public who also experience, as we all do, stress and sore muscles and the need for soothing relief."

3. Safety is key during a massage

"There are many safety precautions for massage in a person with a medical condition," said Dr. Gary Deng, interim chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. "For example, in cancer patients, the area where there is a cancer lesion should not be massaged. Patients at increased risk of bleeding, such as those on chemotherapy or on a blood thinner, should not get strong massage, and only light touch massage should be provided."

4. Kids can benefit from massage

Massage has many benefits in children, even infants, said Cheryl Hall, director of clinical education for the New York Institute of Technology's physical therapy program, based in Old Westbury.

For instance, it can help relieve digestive problems, colic and constipation, she said, and is especially useful in helping children relax before medical procedures like surgery.

"In the U.K., massage has been used in school-aged children and has been shown to decrease stress hormones, ease depression, improve sleeping habits and decrease fighting with others, just to name a few of the positive effects," Hall said.

Parents can massage their children in simple ways -- "many parents instinctively stroke and cuddle their infants to soothe or engage them during regular interactions," she said. Or, they can learn more sophisticated approaches.

However it's done, "strokes should not be too firm or too soft," she said, and parents should pay attention to signs that children need a break -- like yawning, hiccupping, sneezing and looking away.

5. Massage can help caregivers and families

Patients aren't the only people who can benefit from massages, Deng said.

"Taking care of chronically ill family members is a demanding job," he said. "Many caregivers experience stress and distress themselves as a result. Massage therapy will help them cope."

Also, he suggested that "family members give each other massages, which is a great bonding process."