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Is your map smudged?

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

Ever experience pain in {fill in the blank.. shoulder? Knee? Sure!}, but as soon as someone says "Show me exactly where you feel it" you can't seem to find the damn thing anymore? That, my friend, is smudging of your body map.

Body mapping is your ability to mentally & neurologically perceive and identify the various parts and sensations of your body. Imagine standing with your eyes closed and reaching your arm forward. Your ability to know whether your hand is palm down or palm up, and whether someone is touching your palm or back of your hand, are both part of body mapping. Similarly, tactile acuity is the ability to discern between different points touching the body in close proximity. Think of someone touching your fingertip with a pair of open tweezers. If you can distinguish both points of the tweezers, that's higher tactile acuity.

These, as it turns out, are important abilities to have.

Also important to note, body mapping and tactile acuity have been shown to decrease with both acute and chronic pain. This means that pain can cause your brain to be less clear on what exactly it's feeling and where.

And that is what's known as "smudging" of the body map.

So what does this have to do with pain? Or massage therapy for that matter?? Well, it certainly makes it harder to identify the source of pain if your body map is smudged and you can't get clear on where or what you're feeling. On top of that, an unclear body map can also lead to emotionally aggravated pain.

Hold up. What? Emotionally aggravated pain? Yes. Your emotional experience can influence your physical pain experience. I'll say that again:

Your emotional experience can influence your physical pain experience.

This in no way implies that emotionally influenced pain is any less valid than physical pain. However, it is very important in understanding our overall experience of pain and how we can impact it. Knowing that your emotional response to pain ties into your overall physical experience, like when your body map is smudged and you feel frustration over physical pain that seems like it's everywhere, is incredibly helpful. The frustration over the existing pain can actually cause an increase in pain. Fascinating! (And frustrating... damnit.)

Massage and similar manual therapies (like scraping) can help improve, or clear up, your body map. Having a skilled therapist explore soft tissue with varying depths, speeds, and angles can help your brain associate sensation with location. This can assist with clearer pain identification, decreased pain sensation, and improved function. You're effectively "un-smudging" your body map. And by un-smudging your body map, your brain is able to get a better grasp on the physical pain experience.

Adding to that, massage can help you create a relaxed emotional state within your body. Deep relaxed breathing, calming touch, slow & intentional manual work; these can all stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which allows your body to relax ("the rest & digest" response).

By improving the accuracy of your body map and improving your state of relaxation, you may be able to improve your experience of physical pain. And that is worth paying attention to!

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