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The Feel-Good Treatment

Almost 20 years ago, David Laurenti was in a motorcycle accident that severed his spine and left him paralyzed from the waist down. The constant pain that resulted from the accident left him with poor circulation, headaches and severe neck and back pain that had him taking nearly 100 Percodans a month-the only solution his doctors offered.

But when the Pain Center in Punta Gorda recommended massage as part of his therapy, Laurenti began seeing Rose Pekrul, a Fort Myers-based licensed massage therapist (LMT) trained in several different types of therapeutic massage.

"I'm down to almost no pain meds whatsoever," he says, still working with Pekrul after more than 15 years after the accident. My insurance company thinks it's great."

Stories like Laurenti's are becoming increasingly common as more and more people and practitioners are finding that massage can have benefits beyond just feel-good relaxation. "Most neurologists in town have their own massage therapist because the public is screaming for it," says LMT Tamara Thomas.

Massage can loosen tight muscles, stretch connective tissue and increase blood circulation, among its many other benefits. That means that it can effectively be used as a form of therapy for a variety of physiological complaints, from TMJ to fibromyalgia to sciatic nerve pain to sprains and beyond.

As the benefits of massage gain acceptance, many insurance companies have started to cover regular massage as a form treatment prescribed by a doctor. But you don't have to have a note from your doctor to justify the treatment. Florida is a mecca for massage schools and practitioners, which means you can find almost any type of massage you're looking for here. Whether you choose myofascial or neuromuscular, cranial-sacral or rolfing, many types of massage can provide relief from pain, help speed healing, and serve as an adjunct to more traditional options.

"Massage therapists don't replace doctors by any means," says Cheryl Walker, education coordinator for the Florida Health Academy in Naples. "But it's great for the mind and body, and in healing, that's what it's all about."

Success Stories

Deborah Robinson was a healthy, active woman in her mid-40s when she suddenly began experiencing what she calls "excruciatingly bad back pain." She tried yoga and myofascial (connective tissue) massage, but nothing eased her agony.

Then she met Laura Barnes, a Naples LMT who calls herself "the Village Rolfer." "Do you have five minutes?" Barnes asked her after hearing her complaint. "I walked out after five minutes and I've never felt better in my life," Robinson enthuses. "I absolutely felt like a new person." She immediately signed up for the 10-session course of treatment-as did her husband, Calvin, after he saw his wife's results.

Rolfing focuses on connective tissue and on realigning the body by releasing whatever is holding it out of alignment. "It's a whole-body experience because everything's connected. If your feet are out of whack, it's going to affect your neck," Barnes explains.

Barnes often sees patients after an accident that's resulted in whiplash or other injuries. At the end of a 10-session process, she says, the client is usually left pain-free-and restored to a correct, natural posture. Before-and-after photos of rolfing patients often show a remarkable metamorphosis from slouched, hunched posture to tall, straight alignment.

For some, the deep-tissue work of rolfing is too intense, and another kind of massage is a better alternative. A good therapist will talk to a client to find out what type of work he is comfortable with, in addition to what his complaints are.

LMT Jena Walters, owner of Escape with Healing Hands in Naples, was helped with her own severe pain after a car accident with neuromuscular massage, which involves deep pressure work on the muscles. "It changed my whole life," she says, a sentiment common among those who have sought massage therapy for chronic or recurring pain.

Short of surgery there can be little a doctor can do to alleviate the pain of some conditions, notably fibromyalgia (muscle pain) and sciatica (nerve pain). But sometimes a massage therapist can help. "I can work through that pain and get you to a point where you don't need the surgery," Walters avows.

Tamara Thomas, who owns A Healing Touch Therapeutic Massage in Bonita Springs, decided to get licensed as a massage therapist after her own extraordinary experience: After Thomas she was in a head-on collision with a semitrailer truck in 1985, doctors told her she would be in a wheelchair by the time she was 40. She was also told that much of her pain was all in her mind, and her physicians offered no solution beyond medication. "They threw pills at me-lots of pills," she remembers. A combination of myofascial and deep-tissue massage reduced her pain enormously now, at 42, Thomas is still fully ambulatory.

Not all people experience dramatic results, but there is growing scientific evidence to support the ample anecdotal evidence of massage's health benefits. With local rates ranging from about $50 to over $100 per hour-significantly lower than in larger cities like New York or Atlanta-there's no reason not to incorporate massage into part of an overall treatment plan for certain conditions-and as an element in a regular health-maintenance routine.

Chances are good that you'll find significant relief from pain and discomfort. But massage's long-standing reputation as a relaxant means that at the very least, you'll leave refreshed and tension-free. And that's good medicine by any standards.

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