Health professionals who practice Functional Medicine act as detectives of a sort: They ask patients the right questions; use primary and advanced lab test results to obtain data from the body; process information to get a sense of underlying causes of dysfunction; and implement individualized treatment protocols to restore patients to optimal function.

One such protocol a Functional Medicine-practicing physician might refer to is massage. By understanding what Functional Medicine is, a massage therapist is better positioned to play a role on a Functional Medicine team.

Although massage therapists cannot offer or prescribe tests and other treatments, they should be well-read and also understand that they exist. A massage therapist who simply offers massage therapy is valuable; however, a massage therapist who learns about all the options and understands what she offers in the way of healing and relief of pain becomes an asset to a Functional Medicine practitioner.

State of Crisis

Most studies and experts have concluded that the current medical system is failing people with chronic illness. The perception is that our medical system is in a state of crisis. I myself, a doctor of chiropractic for more than 40 years, ran out of options for my own chronic illness. This is what actually led me to explore and understand the new complementary medicine called Functional Medicine.

Functional Medicine is still evolving — and with the opening of the Center for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, is integrating with mainstream health care, albeit slowly.

I have always found the best way to describe the concept of Functional Medicine is to use the iceberg example: When sailing in the ocean, we may see the top of an iceberg; however, what we don’t see is what is below the surface of the water.

The remaining body of the iceberg can continue hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface. (In fact, to be classified as an iceberg, the height of the ice must be greater than 16 feet above sea level with a thickness of 98 to 164 feet, and the ice must cover an area of at least 5,382 square feet.)

The bottom of the iceberg is where Functional Medicine practitioners travel to find answers. They understand that somewhere deep in a patient’s body lie the answers to what is causing chronic illness. It could be metals in the lungs that have resided there for years, or it could be a simple finding of low magnesium that is causing heart issues.

The medical establishment is disease-oriented, while the Functional Medicine practitioner is wellness-oriented. When a physician runs standard blood work, she is looking for an established disease such as cancer, high cholesterol or arthritis.

This is a problem, because many patients might not have an actual disease, even though they are experiencing chronic symptoms. A Functional Medicine practitioner summons many tests, and it is with these tests that possible answers start to come to the surface.

Named diseases are just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, according to Functional Medicine, are the real causes of an individual’s health problems. A patient’s illness may be apparent on the surface, and a series of drugs or common treatments may be applied, but when a patient is no longer responding to drugs or common treatments, where does he turn? Many are turning to complementary medicines and treatments.

I often think about how we used to treat our patients, or better yet, how I was treated for my illnesses. It makes so much sense and in some ways is taking us back to when doctors had minimal tools and less to work with. It forced them to dig deeper and try more methods of healing.

Of course, I am only speaking with regard to the philosophy of finding the root cause, as doctors were very limited years ago with respect to testing. The tests available today did not exist then; now our testing options are practically unlimited and improving every day.

Massage’s Role

As a young man, my dad practiced reflexology, and he was a graduate of the Swedish Institute. My fondest memories of my dad were when my brother and I were sick. He didn’t immediately give us medicine or take us to our family doctor; instead, he took us to a chiropractor to ensure that our spines were perfectly aligned. He applied reflexology and gave us a massage, mostly in the area of the upper back and neck. This was done when we had flu-like symptoms or when we had stomach issues.

When I look back, he was ahead of his time. He, in some ways, was practicing Functional Medicine and resisting the norm of simply giving us medication. He already believed there was a root cause for the obvious symptoms.

For the past eight years, I have been going for a massage twice a week. My son has been a licensed massage therapist for 10 years. We believe and understand that medicine is not always the answer. Diet, exercise, massage, acupuncture and all the other known complementary treatments are proving to be more effective and helping many patients become pain-free.

Functional Medicine addresses the impact that stress has on the immune system and immune-related diseases. Massage therapy is a powerful and effective treatment modality to decrease stress, improve general circulation and to encourage the natural movement of lymph flow.

Many chronic diseases can be managed and even prevented with massage therapy. Therapy for arthritis and many other joint- and muscle-related pains can eliminate the need for drugs, although no course of medical treatment should be changed without consultation with one’s physician. Of course, patients must be diligent and believe in the process — and they generally do, because the reason most turned to Functional Medicine is they had run out of other options.

What I find most interesting is that most chiropractors, physicians and nutritionists involved in Functional Medicine have turned to it for almost the same reason: They ran out of answers and remembered why they became health care professionals in the first place.

I see massage therapy as essential to Functional Medicine, and it is becoming more common to see massage therapy being offered in-house at Functional Medicine clinics. The traditional method of healing was that a doctor first recognized a patient’s disease. He would then diagnose it. Next, he would prescribe medication. He was alone and took it on himself to run the ball through the end zone; however, he oftentimes fumbled because the disease never went away.

A Functional Medicine practitioner goes exploring and then surrounds himself with a team of experts such as nutritionists, acupuncturists and massage therapists, and together, they apply commonsense approaches to healing illness.

Ron Grisanti, DC, wrote this article as the founder and president of Functional Medicine University and one of the developers of FMLogics patient history software. He is also an author, educator and chiropractic clinic owner for more than 40 years. He is a Doctor of Chiropractic, Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner, Diplomate American Clinical Board of Nutrition, a Diplomate of the American Board for Chiropractic Orthopedists, and holds a master’s degree in nutritional science. He wrote “All Functional Medicine Doctors Are Not Alike” for MASSAGE Magazine.