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To Your Health: A non-invasive way to treat pain, avoid injury

Lobstermen have one of the highest rates of job-related injuries in the country. For most it’s common to work in pain. The bending, reaching, and lifting, repeated over and over again year after year, takes a serious toll on a body.

The Northeast Center for Occupational Safety and Health surveyed 395 Northeast lobstermen recently about back pain. One-half of the lobstermen surveyed had low back pain and even more suffered from injuries in the upper extremities—shoulders, elbows, hands and wrists. One way to counter this overuse is through regular massage.

“Lobstermen put in long days, full of rigorous work. The overuse and overexertion are pretty extreme. Every lobsterman lives in some level of pain and inflammation all the time,” explained Brenda Cotton, a licensed massage therapist in Thomaston. Cotton has treated numerous mid-coast lobstermen over the years, some on a regular basis for years at a time.

The repetitive work that lobstermen do each day can cause misalignment and injury if not corrected. Photo by T. Yoder, Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries.

Massage can help alleviate acute pain on a temporary basis by stimulating the body to make natural endorphins, bringing oxygen to overtaxed tissues, and flushing out toxins produced by over exertion. By increasing circulation, inflammation is reduced, thus alleviating pain.

But massage can also treat long-standing dysfunctions in the body. Lobstering causes lobstermen to repeat certain motions, such as banding lobsters or breaking traps over the rail, over and over.

“When these motions are performed repetitively, inflammation develops in the involved soft tissues, and over time this can lead to painful tendonitis, muscle strain, and weakness,” Cotton said. “The body begins to recruit surrounding muscles to perform the task and will hold itself in a misaligned way in order to compensate around the areas of pain.”

Muscles adjacent to the overtaxed tissue will try to protect the damaged area by limiting its motion and will try to do those muscles’ work. That in turn causes neighboring muscles to become contracted and inflamed.

“This chronic pattern of strain, pain, contraction, and inflammation can cause structural dysfunction, leading to further pain and compensations,” Cotton continued. “Eventually everything gets locked up. Massage therapy becomes an unraveling process to help the body find alignment again, and to restore function so the muscles can move efficiently with minimal pain.”

Some of the lobstermen who come to her for relief are in constant pain throughout their bodies. The overtaxed muscles and those compensating tissues around them are in a constant state of partial contraction which leads not only to pain but to a loss of strength. “We can unlock those muscles so that the person is less prone to injury and not wasting energy trying to keep the misaligned structure working,” Cotton said.

“I’ve always felt that a lobster boat should be set up to haul on both sides so that a person can balance out because the work is so one-sided and goes on for so long. Even the captain stands at the helm in a weird position for hours and hours,” she added.

Anyone who uses their body in the wrong way over months and years will inevitably find themselves in pain or injured. “The fascia, or connective tissue, is what interconnects everything in the body. It wraps around every muscle fiber, every muscle bundle, every organ, every structure,” Cotton explained.

“When we move repetitively or hold postures for long periods of time, the fascia retains the memory of that. If this is imbalanced or misaligned, our body can’t function optimally."

“The lobstermen who come to me and find the most improvement are those who follow through with doing a short stretching routine in the morning before they go out and at the end of the day,” she said. “Not long, just 10 minutes or so. This undoes the patterning that comes with the work they do. Taking that ten minutes helps them get through the day and sleep better at night.”

To find a licensed Maine massage therapist in your location, visit: https://www.maine.gov/pfr/professionallicensing/professions/massage-therapy-licensure.

To learn more about specific ways other lobstermen protect their backs, visit the Northeast Center for Occupational Safety and Health site at: https://necenter.org/portfolio/boat-hacks-for-better-backs.

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