Who doesn’t love a great massage? It’s so relaxing! And it can relieve musculoskeletal discomfort and stress. However, do you know the health benefits of massages? Massage therapy can help physically and emotionally, improving your overall wellbeing.
What is massage therapy?
A licensed massage therapist uses different pressures, movements and techniques to manipulate muscles, tendons, ligaments and other soft tissues. Depending on the style of massage, a massage therapist may stroke, knead, rock, tap or hold steady pressure.
The goal of massage therapy is to release stress and tension, provide relief from symptoms, heal injuries, and support wellness.
How do massages provide health benefits to patients?
Fortunately for all of us who love a good rubdown, massages cause positive physiological changes in your body through:
Relaxation responses – involuntary, predictable responses of the nervous system to massage techniques and touch. This response slows your heart and breathing rates, lowers your blood pressure, decreases stress hormones decreases, and relaxes muscles.
Mechanical responses – physical effects that happen when pressure is applied to soft tissues, which leads to:
- Increase in blood and lymph circulation.
- Relaxation and normalization of the soft tissue (muscle, connective tissue, tendons, ligaments), which releases nerves and deeper connective tissues.
Together, these responses can produce the physical and psychological benefits described in the next section.
What kinds of improvements can massages produce?
Firstly, massage therapy can:
- Improve circulation.
- Reduce harmful toxins.
- Boost the immune system.
- Soothe aching muscles/reduce muscle tension.
- Reduce pain and swelling.
- Decrease stress.
Additionally, massage therapy can:
- Enhance relaxation.
- Improve sleep quality.
- Decrease fatigue.
- Reduce anxiety and depression.
- Reduce nausea.
Furthermore, massage therapy can:
- Lower blood pressure.
- Reduce the heart rate.
- Prompt the release of endorphins, which can produce feelings of wellbeing.
- Reduce the levels of stress hormones (such as adrenalin, cortisol and norepinephrine) which helps the immune system.
- Increase joint mobility and flexibility.
- Help lymphatic fluid flow more freely through the body, which is helpful for people with inflammation.
And last but not least, massage can soothe patients, providing a sense of peace and comfort.
Types of massages.
There are two categories: relaxation massages and clinical massages.
Relaxation style massages.
Relaxation massages offer gentle techniques. The goal is to reduce stress, promote overall wellness, relax muscles, diminish pain, and move body fluids (such as blood) to nourish cells and help remove waste products.
Specific goals for relaxation massage include:
- Relief for tight muscles, aches, and pains.
- Improved circulation.
- Reduction of stress.
- Enhanced sense of wellbeing.
- Reduced depression, anxiety, and anger.
- Improved sleep patterns.
- Increased energy and vitality.
- Experience of comfort through touch.
Commercial names for relaxation massages include:
Clinical style massages.
Clinical styles focus on therapeutic goals. These massages involve more specific manipulation of the muscle and/or surrounding connective tissue and may address other systems in the body such as the lymphatic, circulatory, and nervous systems.
Specific goals for clinical massage include:
- Reduce pain.
- Release muscle tightness.
- Repair injured tissues, muscles, tendons, ligaments.
- Release adhesions.
- Release scar tissue.
- Release nerve compression.
- Greater flexibility and range of motion.
Commercial names for clinical massages include:
Who can reap the health benefits of massage therapy?
Massage therapy can help people cope with the pain and stress of many medical conditions, including cancer, heart disease, stomach problems, or fibromyalgia.
Additionally, massage therapy is a gentle, effective way to address anxiety and depression for people dealing with a serious health condition, recovering from a difficult surgery, or nearing the end of life.
Where can you receive massage therapy?
You can receive massage therapy at home, at the hospital, at assisted-living housing, or at a skilled nursing facility.
Research demonstrates the many health benefits of massages.
Below are findings from a sampling of studies on the various health benefits of massages for patients:
- One study found a significant decrease in anxiety following foot reflexology massages on 80 patients following coronary artery bypass graft surgery.
- A small study evaluated massage therapy versus relaxation for people with chronic back pain. Compared to the relaxation group, massage therapy participants reported improved sleep, as well as less pain, depression, and anxiety. Additionally, massage improved flexibility, and increased serotonin and dopamine levels.
- A study of palliative care patients found massage improved quality of life scores, reports of pain and symptoms, and peacefulness.
- Researchers evaluated the impact of massage on 380 adults with advanced cancer with moderate-to-severe pain, 90% of whom were enrolled in hospice. Those who received massage therapy experienced greater pain relief than those who received simple-touch therapy.
- A study evaluated the impact of massage therapy on 1,290 cancer patients. Patients reported symptom severity pre- and post-massage therapy using 0-10 rating scales for pain, fatigue, stress/anxiety, nausea, depression and “other.” Interestingly, massage therapy led to a 50% reduction of symptom scores.
- A small study analyzed the impact of providing 20 minutes of therapeutic massages to either the hands or feet of cancer patients who were undergoing chemotherapy and/or biotherapy. The researchers found that massage treatments led to a statistically significant reduction in the patients’ perceptions of pain, fatigue, nausea, and anxiety.
- Small studies showed massages improved sleep among breast cancer patients, after cardiopulmonary artery bypass graft surgery, and among congestive heart failure patients.
- In a small study of ICU patients, Swedish massages reduced anxiety and improved vital signs.
An important caveat.
Although these studies provide data that shows the health benefits of massages, many involved small numbers of patients. Additionally, some studies (not included in this article) show little benefit from massage therapy. However, there is substantial evidence demonstrating the physical and emotional benefits of massages.
In my opinion, given the low risk of harm and the potential for great benefit, it’s worth a try if your health allows it.
How can you or a loved one receive massage therapy?
If you want to try massage therapy, start by talking to your doctor. Importantly, ask if there are any reasons to avoid massage therapy. Additionally, ask your doctor which type of massage he/she recommends, and what types, if any, to avoid.
If your doctor gives you the green light, the next step is finding a massage therapist with experience treating people with your condition and/or symptoms.
How to find a massage therapist?
Fortunately, some medical centers and hospices offer massage therapy as part of their integrative medicine programs. And your doctor may know of massage therapists with specialized training and experience in techniques that can help your health condition or complaint.
Unfortunately, you may find it difficult to locate a massage therapist with experience related to your medical needs. Although some massage therapists specialize in working with people at the end-of-life, or those dealing with advanced cancer or other serious illness, these specialized therapists are rare. For instance, less than 1% of massage therapists specializing in massages for those receiving hospice or palliative care.
If you need help finding a massage therapist, you can use the provider search tool on the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) website. You can search for certified therapists based on geographic location and modality (technique or style), including the following modalities:
- Active isolated stretching
- Chair massage
- Clinical settings
- CranioSacral therapy
- Deep tissue techniques
- Lomi Lomi
- Manual lymph drainage
- Neuromuscular therapy
- Oncology massage
- Orthopedic massage
Before you choose a therapist, ask about the following:
- Style or techniques used.
- Philosophy of care.
- Years in practice.
- Specialty areas, including experience with your particular condition(s).
- Training and advanced certification.
- If the therapist belongs to professional organizations, and if so, which ones.
You should look for a massage therapist who has at least 500 hours of training from a reputable, accredited school. (You can find out if a school is accredited by contacting the school directly.)
Importantly, if a therapist has NCBTMB certification, he or she has at least 500 hours of training from an accredited school and has passed a written exam.
Get the most out of your massages.
The following steps can help you receive the most benefit possible:
- Importantly, getting massages on a regular basis will help you get the most benefit. However, your body needs time to recover, so getting massages several times a week is generally not a good idea.
- Additionally, make sure you tell your massage therapist about your health issues, including your diagnosis, symptoms, surgical history, etc. And at the start of each session, alert your therapist to any current rashes, bruises, or cuts.
- If something hurts during a massage, do not hesitate to speak up! Although a little discomfort is normal, you should never experience a lot of pain.
After your massage, follow these recommendations:
- Drink cool water which will help your body flush out toxins released during the massage. Drinking water will also help your muscles and joints recover.
- Take a warm Epsom salt bath after a massage because the heat and magnesium can help reduce aches and pains, open up your blood vessels, and increase circulation. And it can help you extend your sense of relaxation. Don’t have a tub? Take a warm shower instead or use a heating pad on sore areas.
- Instead of warmth, you can use an ice pack on painful areas for 15 minutes at a time, a few times per day.
- Following a massage, avoid caffeine and alcohol since they are both diuretics which can dehydrate you and make it harder for your muscles to recover. It you can’t resist, make sure to drink plenty of water at the same time.
- After a massage your body needs to refuel, so consider taking a healthy snack to your next appointment. And keep your meals light.
- Give your body a chance to recover by taking it easy for the rest of the day.
- While a little soreness is normal after a massage, you should not feel pain for several days after your massage. Therefore, if your pain is intense and long-lasting, your massage therapist may have gone too hard. Make note of your sore areas and tell your therapist during your next visit so he/she can modify your treatment.
Personally, I think the many health benefits of massages is clear! But are you curious to learn if other complementary and alternative medicine treatments can help you or a loved one? To learn more, read Are Alternative Treatments Safe? and then read the following posts on the pros and cons of each of these treatments:
- Acupuncture, Ayurveda & Reiki.
- Chiropractic, Osteopathy and Homeopathy.
- Naturopathy, Tai Chi and Dietary Supplements.
- CBD for Medical Conditions.
- Yoga and Magnetic Therapy.