Functional neurology massage works to bring about better cooperation of the body, emotions and nervous system. It uses learning and feedback principles of neuroplasticity–how the brain can rewire itself–to improve functioning. The assessments (see Functional Neuro–A Different Approach to Massage) may give me information about how sensations are limited or distorted–numbness in one arm, or down one side of the face, or continued pain from an old injury. Or it may give me information about where movement is restricted or balance is poor. I use the assessments to design the therapy.
What is the Neurological Basis of Functional Neurology Massage?
The parent field, Chiropractic Functional Neurology, was developed by Dr. Frederick Carrick. There is some controversy with Carrick’s approach (see Controversy). Nevertheless, there are some easy explanations, and ample evidence for how many of these interventions work.
How do nerves communicate from our body to brain?
Our bodies are designed with two way transmission of messages via nerves. Inputs from internal organs, sensory organs and more distant tactile and sensory nerves travel up the spinal cord in certain pathways. Depending on the nerves and the sensation (heat, cold, pain, vibration, light touch, deep pressure, movement, sound, etc.) and whether there are limitations from mechanical blockage–perhaps from inflammation, scar tissue, tight muscles, or bony growths–the signals travel up, through the brainstem and the cerebellum, to the cerebral cortex, “the brain.” Most of them cross over to the opposite side at some point.
There is an orderly arrangement of sensory nerves from your body, for example from your foot and ankle up to various parts of the central nervous system. They travel up the spinal cord to the sensory processing part of the brain. They form a topographic map in the brain where foot and ankle sensations stay adjacent to one another.
How do nerves communicate from brain to body?
The neurons in the brain send electrical signals, and release chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, down the spinal cord to the body. The most familiar outflow is for movement, called motor control. Different parts of the brain send the signal to move, for example to raise your hand. Just as there is a topographic map of incoming signals in the sensory processing areas of the brain, there is a similar map of outgoing signals from the motor areas of the brain. They travel in pathways down through different brain structures, again crossing over to the other side, through the spinal cord, to the hand. Along the way, the brain refines the signals: better coordination between eye and hand, improved targeting, compare with memory of previous actions for refined learning, correct from ongoing sensory input.
So far, we have been talking about body movement and sensations that we are aware of. There is another part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that is responsible for such functions as digestion, heart rate, elimination, our body’s response to emotions, and the immune system. It has both incoming and outgoing signals. It functions for the most part outside our conscious control, except for breathing which operates under both automatic and voluntary control. The ANS is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, sometimes called the fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest systems. These also have two-way communication between the internal organs, bodily systems and the brain.
What Happens Next?
I become aware of brain areas where nerves are not firing well using the assessments. When I compare left to right, I may have found imbalances where one side of the brain needs stimulation for you to function better, or where there might be numbness or loss of sensation. Or perhaps one side is overactive, for example, in processing pain signals, or in emotional hypervigilance. I design my functional neurology massage and exercise strategies to correct the imbalances or calm the nervous system.
Most of the work is done fully clothed so there is no need for disrobing. You may need to wear comfortable loose clothes, so you can move freely. I do very gentle work, Ortho-Bionomy® to release pain and tension, as well as resistive exercises to dampen pain signals. How I work with you as a functional neurology massage therapist is primarily through touch, your conscious awareness, and brain-specific exercises. I may give balance exercises or eye movements to retrain areas of deficiency or connect to neighboring brain areas that are functioning well. I use the Hebbian learning theory of “neurons that fire together, wire together,” for synaptic plasticity,¹ and other strategies to develop neuroplasticity.²
I will also verbally check in with you in order to activate the sensory feedback from muscles, nerves and joints. This is to help you regain voluntary control over the way the brain organizes your muscles and movement. You thus learn how to relax tense muscles, without distorting yourself or telling yourself there is something “wrong” with your posture.³ I also may have you do breathing exercises to calm the parts of the brain called the limbic system, to help you access inner resources for healing.
Limitations of Functional Neurology Massage
I don’t know everything a doctor may know, however. I am not shy about referring you to a medical doctor, naturopathic physician, physical therapist or chiropractor when I can tell that what you need is outside my scope of practice.
On the other hand, I offer something few massage therapists offer–an insider’s view of how your nervous system functions. When any massage therapist touches your skin, we are also touching your nervous system. I can teach you how your body, brain, emotions and nervous system interact and give you some strategies to integrate them. I believe in giving you your power back, helping you reawaken your control over how your brain and body connect,4 so you don’t have to feel like a helpless victim when your wiring is misfiring.
² Neuroplasticity strategies can be found in: Roller ML, Lazaro RT, Byl NN, Umphred DA. Contemporary Issues and Theories of Motor Control, Motor Learning, and Neuroplasticity. In: Umphred DA, Lazaro RT, Roller ML, Burton GU, editors. Umphred’s Neurological Rehabilitation, 6th ed. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Mosby; 2013. p. 69-97
³ See Somatics YouTube, and feedback exercises by Thomas Hanna, Somatics.
4 Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health. by Thomas Hanna