Shoring Up the Defenses

There is a massage technique for the hips that I love and incorporate into many massages. With the client prone and still tucked in cozy under sheets, I mobilize the leg — a gentle rock with one arm — and compress the muscles of the posterior hip with the other hand. Rocking the leg moves the greater trochanter of the femur and mobilizes the many hip muscles that attach there.

Source: Cunningham, D.J. Textbook of Anatomy (New York: William Wood and Co., 1903) 349

It’s a broad move that lets me get a feel for what’s going on in the hip as a whole — what is moving freely, what feels taut, what might need more specific work — and it is a simple move that brings circulation into a number of muscles, a nice way to address the area during massages where the main focus is elsewhere. There are a number of reasons why I think this technique is great, but the reason it has become a staple for me is simply this: hips can be crazy sensitive.

A few different friends have joked that the glutes are where they put all their trigger points. Yoga teachers have designed class after class centered around hip openers on the basis that our hips are where we keep negative emotions (I have been known to shed a tear or two  in pigeon pose, and I am fairly certain that I’m not the only one). Whether or not you believe that the hips are the seat of emotions or an energetic center of the body, I think we can all agree that they are always working. They are the junction between our backs and our weight-bearing extremities. They hold us in standing position and move us forward. They help our legs move in all directions when we ask them to and hold us steady and balanced when we don’t. Our hips work overtime every day, and many people are shocked by how tender they are — how closed in hip opening yoga poses, how sensitive and even painful during a massage. The biggest reason I love the technique outlined above is that mobilizing the leg provides a little distraction and lessens the intensity of working the glutes and the deeper muscles of the hips. Giving the brain something else to process (a rocking or shaking of the leg) eases the discomfort of touching sensitive hips. Maybe it’s the gate control theory of pain in action. Or maybe it’s just that the rocking is relaxing, and relaxing makes for a better massage. I think it’s a bit of both.

I was working one day with a woman who had chronic hip problems, prone to muscle strains and a recurring sensation of slight hip dislocation.  I began my hip work as described: moving the leg to rotate the femur, pressing gently into the tissues around her greater trochanter. She said, “I feel like you’re shoring up the defenses so that hip doesn’t go out.” It caught me off guard. I thought that I was warming the area, evaluating what might be causing her discomfort, loosening muscles rather than shoring them up. In school, I was taught that massage can lengthen, warm, and release tissues and that exercise was the only way to truly make them stronger, but here I was being told that I was adding to the area, a little something strength-like to help guard the joint. In physiological terms, it didn’t totally add up, but it made me smile just the same, the idea that touch can reinforce and make us stronger; that a soft fist compression can act as a buttress of sorts that stays put beyond the duration of touch, shoring up our defenses against whatever may come. I love that imagery. Much has been written about the effects of massage on the immune system. On a more systemic scale, studies have shown that massage improves our ability to fight off illness. So why shouldn’t it be true that this simple technique for a specific area would also shore things up?

As we move more resolutely away from summer and into fall with a new wave of seasonal allergies and early colds upon us, I’ve been thinking about that choice of words. Especially as I just fought off my first cold of the season in two short days (lots and lots of sleep and tea and sleep and soup and tea and sleep). I’ve been thinking about closing windows, hearty pots of soup, wrapping up in sweaters and scarves, shoring up against coming winter. There’s frankly no better time to get a massage. My next one is scheduled for this Thursday. When’s yours?

  One thought on “Shoring Up the Defenses

  1. October 5, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    I love this massage technique. Thanks for the reminder. I usually don’t incorporate it into my massages because my gut tells me that most of my clients don’t want me to touch their glutes. It could be me projecting my own feelings about it.

    • Megan
      October 5, 2012 at 6:49 pm

      I totally get that! Projection is a funny thing. There’s a chance projection informs how much I do use this technique. My own glutes are pretty sensitive, and deep, specific work there can make me flinchy enough to counteract the awesomeness of massage, but hip work is still really important! When I’m receiving massage, on the occasion that this technique is incorporated, I like how non-invasive it is. It’s through the draping, it can be more general than specific while still being effective, and there’s the distraction element I mentioned, so it can be a great way to introduce glute work without putting people off.

  2. October 5, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    Another great/informative blog.

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