published February 21, 2008
Helping Children Find Focus: Massage Calms ADHD Kids
by Cathy Ulrich
Imagine lying on a massage table. As your massage therapist sets to work, you feel your body relax. Your muscles soften, your nervous system calms. Now, imagine how you feel when the massage is over–relaxed, alert, calm, and content.
Anyone who has gotten a massage understands the many benefits that it offers. Massage is usually reserved for adults–or sometimes infants–but what about massage for kids and adolescents? If massage helps calm the body and improve alertness, how might it help kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Can children and teenagers who can’t sit still benefit from massage?
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is rapidly rising as the most common psychiatric diagnostic label for children. Anywhere from 3-7 percent of all school-age children and adolescents may have it, and it is one of the primary causes of behavioral problems in general pediatric settings. Nine boys are diagnosed with ADHD for every girl, but the rate of diagnosis for girls has been rising as well, and girls who are diagnosed have the same level of impairment as boys.
Kids with ADHD show difficulty holding attention and display impulsive behaviors and overactivity levels beyond what might be expected for their age group. They typically show poorer academic performance, have difficulty in social settings, and can’t adapt as well emotionally as kids without ADHD. Studies show that a diagnosis of ADHD puts kids at higher risk for delinquent behaviors and substance abuse. Other diagnoses such as learning disabilities, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders are often seen in the same children.
Now a household name, the drug Ritalin is the most common medication prescribed for children diagnosed with ADHD. In fact, it’s the most common drug prescribed for any childhood disorder. It’s been estimated that more than five million school-age children take Ritalin annually.
Known to stimulate areas of the brain associated with attention, arousal, and inhibition, Ritalin seems to help improve ADHD symptoms in about 75 percent of cases, but its effects last only as long as it’s taken, and it does produce side-effects. Nervousness, headaches, sleeplessness, and rapid heart rate are sometimes seen with its use, and overdose can produce severe effects such as agitation, hallucinations, high blood pressure, seizures, heart arrhythmias, and psychosis. In addition, studies are only now being conducted on long-term effects.
Ritalin, as well as other psychostimulant drugs, can be effective in improving attention span and modifying behaviors associated with ADHD, but kids need to be monitored carefully for side effects and appropriate dosage.
Massage for ADHD
Two recent studies conducted by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami reported that regular massage therapy can be an effective treatment for kids with ADHD. One study found adolescent boys who received ten 15-minute daily massages were observed by their teachers to be more focused in their schoolwork, and they fidgeted less. In addition, the children rated themselves as happier than those who participated in a relaxation therapy program.
Another study involved kids aged 7-18, 20 percent of whom were girls. Each subject received a 20-minute massage twice a week. They showed immediate improvement in their moods and longer-term behavioral improvement in the classroom. They also reported feeling happier and their teachers found them to be more attentive.
In adult studies, massage has been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, helping to mitigate the active fight-or-flight response. Massage also helps improve math computation performance and raises alertness levels, as measured on electroencephalograms (EEGs). Finally, massage decreases depression and increases mental focus. The same effects are seen in children and teenagers with ADHD.
Incorporating professional massage into your child’s routine may help him to develop an age-appropriate ability to focus, a calmer disposition, and even increased confidence. Studies report that two 20-minute massages a week are enough to show significant improvement in ADHD children. Because these kids have trouble staying still for prolonged periods, they better tolerate shorter, more frequent massages.
For massage on children with ADHD, a practitioner generally uses simple, moderate-pressure strokes to the child’s head/neck, arms, torso, legs, and back. Dividing time between these areas–say four minutes each–will address the full body and is enough to get the desired effect. Most kids do fine fully clothed.
A comfortable bed, chair, or table in a quiet room is best. For parents seeking skilled bodywork for their kids, chair massage is a great choice, done with the child fully clothed and for about 20-30 minutes at a time.
In addition, supplementing with home massages between professional sessions can also be useful. Talk to your massage therapist about private massage lessons for you. She can teach you simple, effective techniques to use on your child when frequent visits to the massage therapist may not be practical.
By adding massage to your child’s routine, you’re giving him much needed physical contact and helping to calm his nervous system, which will pay dividends in his ability to do school work, interact with peers and teachers, and be happier in general. And if you’re massaging your child yourself, you’ll create the opportunity for a stronger emotional bond between the two of you.
Massage for Your Teenager? Bodywork Can Ease Adolescent Angst
While teens may be less likely than their parents to go to a massage therapist, there are plenty of reasons why this age group should be encouraged to give it a try. The benefits of massage are well documented, among them relief of muscle tension, lowered stress hormones, increased sense of relaxation, improved immune function, and even a heightened ability to concentrate, according to studies conducted by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. But for teenagers, there’s an additional payback.
The teenage body is in the midst of transformation — exponential growth and development in a rapid period of time. On the physical side, teens may be at increased risk for aches, pains, and injury. Many teens strain their bodies with competitive sports, get erratic sleep, and consume a less-than-optimal diet. Massage can help muscles recover from overuse, and help balance the body and maintain that stability.
Perhaps even more crucial, teen massage can help improve body image and sleep patterns, and contribute to decreased depression, anxiety, and stress. This keeps a teen connected to her body, even as it morphs in confounding ways. “Many teens are self-conscious, and not happy with their bodies,” says Eeris Kallil, massage therapist and shiatsu instructor at the Boulder College of Massage Therapy, in Colorado. “Massage can help teens stay grounded.” Bodywork has also been reported to help mediate eating disorders, a growing concern among teens.
Another potential plus: A beneficial, therapeutic relationship can develop between bodyworkers and teenagers during the years when adolescents need adult confidantes, but keep parents at a distance. The practitioner can become a supportive, trusted adult in a teen’s life. And the session itself, according to Kallil, can be a way to deal with all the physical and emotional turmoil of this tender age.
Massage for Seniors: Bodywork Improves Quality of Life
Almost 35 million Americans are age 65 or older, and about 2,000 more reach this age every day. As the U.S. demographic shifts to an older population, it’s important to find ways of helping our elders maintain their health and vitality. Massage for seniors is gaining importance as an alternative therapy to increase quality of life, and many massage therapists are getting special training to better serve this growing population.
Seniors’ Special Needs
While similar in technique to other forms of massage, geriatric massage considers the special needs of the elderly. The specialty trained practitioner knows about positioning for greatest comfort and will often have the client rest in the same position for the entire massage. Mobility challenges may dictate the massage be done in a bed or wheelchair. The therapist may also work both sides of the body at the same time to enhance body awareness, or only work hands and feet, if the client prefers. Sessions may be limited to 30 to 45 minutes, as older clients often do better with shorter, more frequent, massages.
The geriatric massage therapist is aware of health issues associated with aging and how to safely work with this type of client and with associated physicians. Consequently, the practitioner is able to individualize the massage service based on the client’s health, mobility, and comfort level.
Benefits of Geriatric Massage
A recent study conducted at the Weaver’s Tale Retreat Center in Oregon looked at the effects of massage for elderly clients. The results of the two-year study showed that participants experienced a decrease in breathing rate of 50 percent and an improvement in range of motion, posture, body awareness, skin color, and muscle tone. Furthermore, it is well documented that caring touch benefits emotional well-being in seniors — a population at greater risk of suffering from depression.
Massage therapy can add to the quality of a senior’s life, both physically and emotionally. Consider booking a session for someone you love, and make a difference in their life.