Why get a massage?
Because it feels absolutely amazing, that’s why.
But did you know there are some really important health benefits of massage?
It’s true: compelling new research has shown that massage can actually help you feel less sick, less sore, and less sad. It can increase your energy and even help you lose weight.
We scoured the latest research and scientific literature and are happy to present to you the 5 massive health benefits of massage.
1. Massage Increases Blood Circulation & Heals Sore Muscles
Increasing blood circulation is without a doubt one of the most important benefits of massage. Remember this rule of thumb: wherever blood flows, healing goes. If your arteries, capillaries, and veins are obstructed, then cells are cut off from oxygen and nutrients. Not only that, but old, polluted blood can’t really move out. Our cells cannot thrive in an environment like that. This is why increasing the flow of fresh blood to our cells is so important for healing damaged organs and muscle tissue. And there’s increasing evidence that massage therapy can be extraordinarily effective at stimulating healthy blood flow.
Nina Franklin, postdoctoral fellow in physical therapy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a leading author on case studies proving the effects of massage therapy in aiding in the recovery of sore muscles:
"Our studies validate the real value of massage therapy in exercise and injury, which has been previously recognized but based on minimal data."
Her team of researchers set out to see if massage would improve circulation locally or systemically and reduce muscle soreness after exercise. They experimented with healthy yet sedentary adults who were asked to exercise their legs on a leg press machine until their muscles fatigued. Half of the group received basic Swedish massage techniques afterwards while the other half did not. The results were impressive: the half that received massage therapy observed no soreness after exercising, while the non-treated half reported deep soreness, even up to 24 hours after activity.
Massage reduces muscle soreness after exercise! A study found those who received massage after exercising reported no soreness 90-mins later. Those who did not receive massage after exercising reported lasting soreness 24-hrs later.
Shane Phillips, UIC associate professor of physical therapy and principal investigator on the study, remarked:
“The circulatory response was sustained for a number of days, which suggests that massage may be protective."
That’s a pretty remarkable finding and is one of the most important health benefits of massage.
If you’re an athlete or you’re trying to make more rapid progress in the gym, take note.
Massage increases blood circulation just as well as exercise! A study found those who received massage and did not exercise showed virtually identical levels of improvement in circulation as those who exercised and received massage.
2. Massage Reduces Cortisol & Boosts Your Immune System
One of the truly miraculous benefits of massage is that it can help eliminate excess cortisol from your body. Cortisol is the key stress hormone secreted by your adrenal glands. When life gets hard, your adrenals dump cortisol into your bloodstream, pushing your cells into overdrive. Maintaining high levels of stress, and thus increased systemic cortisol, is incredibly bad for your health. It significantly weakens your immune system. It can also leave you prone to tight muscles, headache, high blood pressure, anxiety, poor sleep, increased appetite, poor memory, and even weight gain. It’s no wonder that Psychology Today has called elevated levels of cortisol in the body "public health enemy number one."
How can we avoid all that damage to our bodies from excess cortisol?
One meta-study of peer-reviewed articles showed that, on average, researchers demonstrate a 31% decrease in ambient cortisol levels after massage. That's also a remarkable finding! Prominent researchers think so, too. When asked about the study by the New York Times, Dr. Mark Hyman, the chairman of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, called it, "Very, very intriguing and very, very exciting—and I’m a skeptic."
And massage has also been shown to very positively affect your immune system, presumably by reducing all that excess cortisol, but perhaps by a means not yet understood.
In the first large systematic study on the impact of massage on the immune system of healthy adults, which was conducted by Cedar-Sinai’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, the findings demonstrated that Swedish massage can increase lymphocyte activity, decrease arginine vasopressin (a hormone linked to aggression), and decrease most cytokines associated with white blood cell activity. These cytokines can be linked to immune stressors such as inflammation, infection, and even cancer. Not surprisingly, the study also showed a significant reduction in, you guessed it, cortisol.
Massage can boost your immune system! A Cedar-Sinai study found just one Swedish Massage can increase lymphocyte (important white blood cell) activity, reduce cortisol (the “stress hormone”), and more.
3. Massage Decreases Stress, Anxiety & Depression
Did you know that being physically touched in a healing way is actually a cornerstone to your developmental health? Research now strongly supports the truth behind what we all instinctively knew—simple human contact can be vital for alleviating stress, anxiety, depression, and even aggressive behavior in children and adults. Yes, there are deep emotional benefits of massage therapy.
It turns out that the restorative effects of touch creates measurable changes in our brain. In multiple studies, massage has been shown to increase happiness hormones like oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine by more than 30%. That’s a big deal, considering that approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States experiences mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
An important 2016 study conducted at Emory University and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that Swedish Massage decreases symptoms of anxiety and depression in individuals with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Dr. Mark Hyman Rapaport, chair of Emory University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said in a press release:
“These findings are significant and if replicated in a larger study will have important ramifications for patients and providers.”
Swedish Massage helps reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression according to a 2016 massage study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
But not all massage produces the same effects. For example, one study demonstrated that Swedish massage significantly outperforms "light touch" massage for increasing positive neurological changes. So while it’s nice to get that five-minute shoulder rub from your main squeeze, the science suggests you’ll get a way bigger emotional lift from a professional massage.
4. Massage Helps with Pregnancy & Birth Outcomes
Good news for expecting mothers! On-going research into prenatal massage has shown some very positive outcomes for you and even your newborn infants.
(Now, if you’re not currently pregnant—or even a women—and are therefore wondering why this part of the article should interest you, we’d just like to remind you that you were more than likely birthed by a pregnant woman at some point in your past. We think your mom would appreciate you taking a minute to consider some of the challenges she might have dealt with during your lengthy stay in her womb, and how massage could have helped make that experience quite a bit more comfortable for you both.)
In fact, the research in this area of massage therapy has churned out some truly remarkable data. In the first of a very interesting series of studies by the Touch Research Institute in which pregnant women were professionally massaged for only 20 minutes, twice a week, for five weeks, the women reported reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as less leg and back pain. Researchers also measured lowered cortisol levels in these women (sound familiar?), and a reduction in excess fetal movement was measured, too.
Pregnant woman can experience significant benefits from massage. An important study shows that just one short massage a week for 5 weeks can reduce depression, anxiety, and leg and back pain. Time to schedule an appointment!
In the second study, depressed pregnant women were chosen to receive the same protocol: 20 minutes of massage, twice a week, but this time over sixteen weeks, and the massage was conducted by their significant others, who were trained on some basic technique. The results were similar to the previous study, but what was most interesting were the actual birthing outcomes. There was an 11% premature birth rate in the control group. The percentage in the group getting massage? Zero.
Pregnant ladies, regular massage by your significant other can provide you with important emotional and physical support during your pregnancy. It can also lower your chances for a premature birth. Good for you, baby, and him!
The research went on to demonstrate a host of benefits for pregnant women overall:
- Lowered levels of sciatica and back pain
- Reduced swelling in feet and legs
- Reduced postpartum depression and stress
- Lower cortisol levels in newborns
- Significantly less labor pain
- Shortened labor (3 hours less!) with less need for medication
Talk about the benefits of massage! These results are highly suggestive of a need to consider massage a normal and important part of a successful pregnancy. Considering the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death in postpartum women, this is a situation in which regular massage could literally be life-saving.
5. Massage Safely Decreases Back, Neck & Joint Pain
Aging... Not generally recommended, if you can avoid it. Here’s one reason why: as you get older, your joints typically become stiff, weak, and even painful. You essentially become stuck in place, like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. But here’s the good news—this deterioration of our joints, especially in the back, neck, and hips, can be significantly reduced by... wait for it... regular massage.
A 2012 study from the Harvard Medical School endorsed the use of massage therapy as a viable therapeutic option for helping millions suffering from lower back pain. The study stated:
"Receiving massages may enable you to spend less on doctor visits and pain medications."
In general, the folks at Harvard Medical School have a lot of positive things to say about massage and its ability to stop joint pain. Here they cite a study that even shows massage can decrease hand pain and increase grip strength.
These results aren’t just confined to the somewhat artificial experience of massage in a controlled research facility. Real-world massage has been demonstrated to work for stopping chronic back pain, too, according to a novel study from the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University. They cite a 50% improvement in back pain for those participating in the research, which put patients in the hands of everyday licensed massage therapists in their normal clinical environment.
Harvard Medical School and Purdue University agree: Massage therapy significantly decreases chronic back pain.
And massage has also been shown to be a better choice to resolve pain than over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen. In fact, over-the-counter NSAIDs have been shown to be no better than placebo at helping to address spinal pain. But they do come with very significant risk of injury to your heart, stomach, kidneys, and liver.
It’s no wonder that doctors are turning away from these hazardous and generally ineffective medicines in favor of something proven, but also safe. Something like massage. In fact, the new guidelines for treating low back pain as issued by the American College of Physicians as of February, 2017 suggest massage over NSAIDs for back pain, particularly in the first twelve weeks of discomfort. As Dr. Robert H. Shmerling, M.D, explains in his Harvard Health Blog:
"I would not be surprised if non-pharmacological treatment of back pain becomes the norm over time. Many of my patients already seek out these treatments regardless of whether I recommend them. After all, the “usual” medications for low back pain are not all that effective and often cause trouble. It’s time we recognize that there are other, better ways to help."
Massage therapy is a proven, safe alternative to the pharmacological treatment of back pain. Massage is a better way to help.
All in all, it seems pretty clear that massage should be considered more than just a nice way to unwind after a stressful week at work. Indeed, based on the growing body of evidence, massage should now be considered a powerful medicine that can help your body to heal after a workout, decrease your excess cortisol levels, support your emotional well-being, resolve your back and joint pain, and even keep pregnant women and their unborn babies safe and healthy. All without the use of dangerous drugs or expensive medical procedures.
So go on, set up that regular massage! Your doctor will be glad you did.