My capacity to make a difference with massage and bodywork changed enormously in 2012, when I took a year-long advanced course called Functional Neurology for Bodyworkers.1 It increased my understanding of the relationship of brain, nervous system, body, and emotions, and how we create neuroplastic changes. I learned to perform a functional neuro assessment for treating chronic pain, numbness, “brain fog”, head injury (see Head Injury), or other neurological conditions, and strategies to address what I found. How is that different from what I learned in massage school?
What is Functional Neurology for Bodyworkers?
Functional neurology is a new field for bodyworkers that looks at how the body, brain and nerves function, and where there are limitations. It uses many of the same assessments used by medical neurologists, mostly the low-tech non-invasive ones. They help us to determine what bodywork interventions can stimulate your nervous system to create new nerve pathways, improve learning and memory, change sensory and movement signals, relieve anxiety, hypersensitivity or pain. We also may modify our interventions to not overstimulate fragile nerves, or to inhibit pain signalling. I have used it to benefit people with such varied conditions as whiplash, chronic pain from trauma, Parkinson’s, ADHD, numbness down one arm or leg and MS.
We learned to do assessments that were not taught in Oregon massage schools: cranial nerves, that control eye movement and facial expression, sense of smell, pupil constriction, and the gag reflex; cardinal fields of gaze and opto-kinetic testing of eye movements to show functioning of brain areas that track a moving object (parietal lobe), move quickly to a new target (frontal lobe), and smoothly coordinate eye movements (cerebellum); muscle strength, pinwheel, vibration and deep tendon reflex tests to isolate peripheral nerve and nerve root function; rapid hand movements and other balance and coordination tests; difference between right and left for movement, pain and sensation. We always take an extensive health history, to connect your current functional neuro symptoms with previous injuries or health challenges.
How Does This Change the Massage?
- I may have you do eye movements to strengthen communication to areas of the brain that need it.
- I may show you a chart of the dermatome map of the body, so you understand how increased or diminished pain or skin receptor sensitivity follows a pattern that relates to particular nerves that may be trapped by tight muscles closer to the spine, or injuries.
- I may use scents to one nostril to jump start sensory input to that side of your brain, if the other side of the brain is dominant and you are experiencing an imbalance.
- I may have you do standing single leg exercises to improve the brain-body connection.
- I may give you other brain-body challenge exercises.
- I may just massage on one side of the body to stimulate the opposite side of the brain.
- I may use a different kind of massage that inhibits or decreases pain signals or your brain’s perception of pain. This is sometimes effective for injuries or surgery that result in what is called central sensitization of pain.2, 3
- I may follow the direction of a nerve pathway with a light touch bodywork protocol to find areas of impingement and release them.
- I may use a pulse oximeter to monitor when the bodywork is putting you into a parasympathetic mode where you can heal. It also lets me know when to limit the massage or exercise in relation your nervous system’s capacity to improve.
1 Dr. Paul Thomas, American Functional Neurology Society, DAFNS
2 Baron, R, et al. “Peripheral Input and Its Importance for Central Sensitization.” 2013. Annals of Neurology 74 (5) (November): 630–636.
3 Woolf, Central Sensitization: Uncovering the Relation between Pain and Plasticity