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Don't Underestimate The Swedish Massage

Karyl Taylor, LMP MA60475800 Oct 9, 2015

It seems to me that as the massage world continues to get bigger, the less I hear of anyone wanting (or performing really) a Swedish massage. I continuously hear, “I’m not here for relaxing, I’m here to feel better!” Feel better, well that is a rather subjective notion. The idea of “feeling better” today has somehow become based on how painful the massage can be. The whole no pain no gain has been all too widely accepted. Now don’t get me wrong I am all for feeling a bit of discomfort in my massage in order to “feel better”, but does it always have to be deep tissue? Now I know this will spark a whole new argument, debating whether or not deep tissue has to hurt in order to be deep tissue. Another time, another blog.

Research studies through the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine and International Journal of Neuroscience, claim that massage increases serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin as well as decreases levels of cortisol. So what does that mean for the body? Serotonin and dopamine are both neurotransmitters that help regulate and elevate your mood. When low levels of either happen, it has been linked with depression, anxiety, and over all lethargy. Oxytocin is a bit more different. This fun hormone has been deemed the “cuddle hormone” because it has been shown to be released during cuddling. While it is a hormone, it tends to act as a neurotransmitter, making it an interesting little neuropeptide that makes you feel oh so warm and cuddly on the inside. Oh, did I mention that each of these studies done were with 45 minute Swedish massage?

So far, I’ve just gone over the physiological effects of massage therapy. While raising those neurotransmitters and hormones alone will make anyone start to feel good, it still leaves out the actual pain and ache that bring people in for a massage. One of the more recent studies randomly assigned 400 adults with moderate to severe lower back pain that lasted for three or more months to either a weekly whole body Swedish massage, weekly massage that focused on specific muscles problems in the lower back and around the hips, or usual care. The people in the usual care group were mostly prescribed pain medication, muscle relaxants, and just seeing their regular doctor.

After ten weeks, participants in both massage groups reported greater average improvements in pain and functioning then those in the usual care groups. The type of massage used made no difference in the outcome. At the end of the ten week study, 36‐39% of patients in the massage groups said their pain was nearly or completely gone, while the usual care group had a whopping 4%. The part that strikes me the most here is that both massage groups were hand in hand (no pun intended). Whether it was a Swedish massage or a specific massage, both groups had noticeable relief in pain. Not too bad for just a “relaxation” massage.

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Let’s breakdown how each of these affect the body. Serotonin, the most well known of all the neurotransmitters. Since it is a neurotransmitter its main basic function is to relay messages from one area of the brain to another. Because of the widespread distribution of its cells, it is believed to influence a variety of psychological and other body functions (pain perception being one). Of the approximately 40 million brain cells, most are influenced either directly or indirectly by serotonin. Low levels of serotonin have been directly linked to causing depression and anxiety, giving serotonin the nick name, “the happy neurotransmitter”. Basically when you’re sad or depressed serotonin (or lack of) is to blame, but when you are happy and feel good once again serotonin is to blame!

Dopamine is highly associated with the motivational part of your brain, when you are rewarded you get a burst of “feeling good” which you can attribute to a nice rush of dopamine. Low levels of dopamine make both humans and animals less likely to work for things. Also low levels of dopamine can cause a decrease in neurocognitive functions, particularly those linked to the frontal lobe such as memory, attention and problem solving. Dopamine also plays a critical role in the way our brain controls our movement and is thought to be a crucial part of the basal ganglia motor loop. 

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