Functional Neuro–A Different Bodywork Approach

Functional neuro tracks the brain-body connection. Brain_human_normal_inferior_view_with_labels_en.svgMy 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. 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. (1)

It can be used to treat chronic pain, numbness, “brain fog”, head injury (see Head Injury), or other neurological conditions. I then learned strategies to address what I found. How is that different from what we learned in massage school?

How is functional neuro different from regular bodywork?

Functional neurology is a new field for bodyworkers that looks at how the body, brain and nerves function. It also looks at where there are limitations. Because of this, it can address issues that are not normally considered massage-related. But there is growning evidence that massage therapists can make a difference in the body-brain-nervous system connection. Functional neuro is one of them.

My initial assessment is key. Perhaps you have already seen a doctor. Perhaps you have been told there are no findings in CT, MRI or X-rays. And perhaps your body is still not functioning optimally and you (and your doc) don’t know what to do. Then I will use some of the same neuro assessments used by medical neurologists. However, mine are the low-tech non-invasive ones.

The assessments help me know what bodywork interventions might improve function for you. Do you need to stimulate your nervous system to create new nerve pathways? Or, do you need to improve learning and memory, or change sensory and movement signals? Or, do you need to relieve anxiety, hypersensitivity or pain? I also may modify treatments 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.

Dermatomes_and_cutaneous_nerves_-_anteriorHow is a Functional Neuro Assessment Different from a Massage Assessment?

Functional neuro students learned to do assessments that we did not learn from Oregon massage schools. However, more advanced Canadian massage schools often teach these. We assess:

  • 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.

I 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?

  • Dermatomes_and_cutaneous_nerves_-_posteriorI may have you do eye movements to strengthen communication to areas of the brain that need it.
  • I can show you a dermatome map of the body. Like the one on the right, it can show you how increased or diminished pain may follow a pattern of the nerves. One pattern can show where there has been an injury. Another might show where tight muscles are pressing on nerves.
  • If one side of your brain is dominant, you may experience an imbalance. Unlike movement, smells affect the brain on the same side. So, scents to the opposite side nostril can jump start sensory input to the weaker side.
  • Standing single leg exercises can improve the brain-body connection in a functional neuro approach.
  • Similarly, massage to one side of the body can stimulate the opposite side of the brain.
  • However, I use a different kind of massage to inhibit pain signalling. It can also decrease your brain’s perception of pain. This inhibitory massage is sometimes effective for injuries or surgery that result in what is called central sensitization of pain.
  • Another option for pain is light touch bodywork. I can follow the direction of a nerve pathway, 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.

You might enjoy: Functional Symptoms and Today’s Neuroscience

1. Dr. Paul Thomas, American Functional Neurology Society, (He has closed his website, for now.)
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


4 Replies to “Functional Neuro–A Different Bodywork Approach”

  1. jmddurkin

    I am truly fascinated by this…was not really aware of formal training in this realm. Thanks for posting! I have some research on my to do list now…

    1. Integration Massage Post author

      Hi, JMD,
      Canadian Massage Therapists do many of the assessments we learned in this class, and they often have 1500-2200 hour programs. In one of our optional textbooks, Fiona Rattray and Linda Ludwig in Clinical Massage Therapy take them for granted.

      I had been looking for a class that would give me more tools to use with clients with head injuries. Functional Neurology for Bodyworkers was a year long intensive class, meeting two days a month in Portland, Oregon, with a review class a few months later and a diplomate exam. It required a lot of practice in assessments, learning medical terminology, and study groups with other students between classes. It is taught by Dr. Paul Thomas, a Board Certified Chiropractic Functional Neurologist, and graduate of the Carrick Institute. I feel like it was a gift for him to make this material accessible to MTs, because it’s pretty advanced, fascinating, and cutting edge material. Here is his website: American Functional Neurology Society,

      Update, 5/4/17 Dr. Thomas website appears to have been taken down.

  2. Jody

    Does he still do these classes? The link to American Functional Neurology Society doesn’t work. I have taken some neuro based classes and am wanting to delve deeper into it.

    1. Integration Massage Post author

      I agree, his website link doesn’t work. Sorry it took me so long to see your post!

      Dr. Paul Thomas was also offering an online class. Try this link: This is an outline of the same program I took: Although that page says it was updated in 2016, the course dates are 2011-12. You might contact the Massage Therapy Institute of Colorado, and find if they will be offering it again. MTIC states: “The Certification in Neurology for Bodyworkers course is presented by trained associates of Michael Pierce, DC”.

      There are some neurology-related classes for bodyworkers offered by other teachers.

      Thank you for catching this! Let me know how it goes with these, or if you find other neuro programs for bodyworkers.