There are more than 640 recognized complementary and alternative medicine modalities–everything from acupressure, to chiropractic work, to yoga, to meditation, to massage therapy. Over the years there have been many studies to try to determine if these techniques are as effective as other “traditional medicine” options, or if they’re better as a compliment to other treatment, or if there are any negative aspects. The good news is that when it comes to massage therapy, there are some very promising results. The bad news is that there there still aren’t enough studies to tease out the benefits of massage by modality (technique). Most focus on the effects of massage therapy on a specific disease or condition.
Just the facts about massage
Massage therapy has been around for more than 5000 years. The practice of using touch as a therapeutic and healing method are evident in the ancient history of India, Egypt , China and Japan, Greece and European countries. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century, however, that there was a rising interest in natural healing methods in general, and massage specifically, in the US and other Western countries. Massage has since earned a place as a respected and legitimate form of complementary medicine focusing on increasing wellness, disease prevention, and more.
Today’s massage therapists draw their techniques from both Eastern and Western practice, incorporating a deep knowledge of anatomy and physiology to focus the work on problems areas, or use the techniques to promote deep relaxation.
Here are four studies that show the breadth of some of the research looking at the efficacy of massage therapy:
- A Cedars-Sinai Medical Center study reveals a single 45-minute Swedish massage decreases cortisol levels and increases the immune system’s white blood cells.
- The University of Miami compared light pressure massage, and found that moderate/stronger pressure better enhances growth/development in infants and reduces stress in adults.
- A University of Auckland, NZ, study found massage decreased migraine frequencies, improves sleep quality and induced heart rate and cortisol decreases for migraine patients.
- The University of Goteborg, Sweden, found massage reduces nausea in women with breast cancer undergoing chemotherapy.
Lasting benefits of massage
One recent study from Atlanta’s Emory University studied participants who received periodic Swedish massage once or twice a week for five weeks. Compared to a control group who didn’t get massage at all, those who received massage therapy had lower levels of stress hormones, including cortisol. They also experienced significant improvements in immunity, including increased counts of white blood cells, which play a key role in fending off illness and infection.
After each massage, participants reported that the benefits of massage lasted for several days, and each subsequent massage offered a cumulative benefit. In other words, a routine massage ritual is superior to an occasional massage.
“The act of massage itself has amazing biological effects,” says lead study author Mark H. Rapaport, MD, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine. “Of course, a single session will do great things for the body, but regular sessions seem to be even more profound.”
The envelope please
Speak to just about anyone who’s had a massage and they’ll tell you they felt better. Athletes will tell you that massage helps them recover more quickly from the stresses they place on their bodies. Working moms and dads will gush about the benefits of getting away for just a bit and focusing on relaxation. Pregnant women will report easing of aches and pains. Couples will tell you that getting a couples massage brought them closer together and was a memorable way to share some quiet time. Students report an improved ability to focus on tasks. Cancer patients report significant benefits in reducing their stress levels and easing the pain of treatment. The list goes on. Touch is a very powerful healing tool and the focused and informed touch of massage therapy IS good for you.