When First We REALLY Meet – Massage and the Nervous System, Part 2

Pacinian Corpuscle

It is not the therapeutic intention that is fruitful, but it is how we really meet that is therapeutically fruitful.  (paraphrase of Martin Buber)

The nerve cells which sense pressure and vibration were discovered in 1831 by the Italian anatomist, Giovanni Pacini, who also discovered the cholera bacteria. Named “Pacinian corpuscles” in his honor, these lie deeper than the cells which respond to light touch* and deeper than most thermoreceptors which respond to temperature.

In massage and bodywork, the first living layer we contact is through light touch, which can create therapeutic benefit through the sense of presence, warmth and gentleness. It initiates a sense of contact – “You are not alone, I am with you.” It helps clients begin to step out from an isolated sense of self, which often accompanies trauma, disease, injury or pain.

The second living layer of touch is created by pressure and vibration, which engage the Pacinian corpuscles. Pressure communicates something different than light touch. We say a handshake maintained with just light touch feels like a “dead fish” handshake. Without pressure, touch doesn’t fully come alive. The sense of aliveness comes from just the right amount of pressure and quality of vibration.

Light touch is on the body, pressure is touch in the body. Whereas light touch can be unintentional, pressure usually conveys the conscious will to engage the other person. Pressure and vibration create amplified therapeutic benefit through the living choice not just to be in contact, but to be in meaningful communication. With the dialogue of two living bodies and souls, begins the possibility of learning and change.

A musical tone begins with a characteristic presence and timbre. We first sense the instrument playing, trumpet or flute. Then we hear the players’ choices regarding volume, duration, and frequency for each sustained note. Just as the optimum volume of a musical note may feel so perfect or the wonderful brightness of a certain color can take a painting into a whole new dimension, so sensing just the right amount, duration, and quality of pressure and vibration is an essential, magical element in every touch.

From now on you can enjoy consciously observing and honoring each successive level of engagement. Touch lightly, then pause, letting your warmth and presence be experienced by the client. Then press into the body and pause again, letting the client feel the beginnings of meaningful communication and the deep satisfaction that comes from being truly met.

*  for more on light touch – see Oct. 12 blog “When First We Meet – Massage and the Nervous System, Part I”