Adequate sleep is necessary for healthy functioning, and quality sleep is vital to health and wellness. But an estimated 50 to 70 million Americans experience sleep issues that affect their health,1 often leading to low work performance, slowed reaction time, obesity, higher risk of long-term disease, and substance abuse.2
Chronic insomnia causes extreme fatigue and problems with concentration, and can adversely affect a person’s mood and well-being. For healthcare professionals, helping patients overcome insomnia is critical for fostering overall health and wellness.3 According to Ralph Pascualy, MD, medical director of the Swedish Sleep Medicine Institute (SSMI) in Seattle, both the quantity and quality of an individual’s sleep directly affect their health.4
Nutrition and exercise are often recommended as the foundation of good health, but research shows that quality sleep should also be part of any holistic treatment. Those who sleep less than 8 hours per night are experiencing “sleep debt,” which cannot be reversed by sleeping more on the weekend.4
According to the Mayo Clinic, studies have found massage to be beneficial for insomnia-related stress, as well as2:
- Digestive disorders
- Myofascial pain syndrome
- Paresthesias and nerve pain
- Soft tissue strains or injuries
- Sports injuries
- Temporomandibular joint pain
Benefits of Massage Therapy
The National Institutes of Health has advised that massage therapy can reduce fatigue and improve sleep5 and, based on research gathered by the American Massage Therapy Association, massage has been shown to improve sleep in infants, children, adults, and the elderly alike, as well as individuals with psychiatric disorders, fibromyalgia, cancer, heart disease, lower back pain, cerebral palsy, and breast disease.1
Anne Williams, director of education, Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals, and author of Spa Bodywork and Teaching Massage, says, “Massage helps people spend more time in deep sleep, the restorative stage in which the body barely moves, which reduces the neurotransmitter associated with pain.”
There are many different types of massage, including these common types2:
- Swedish massage—This is a gentle form of massage that uses long strokes, kneading, deep circular movements, vibration, and tapping to help relax and energize.
- Deep massage—This massage technique uses slower, more-forceful strokes to target the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue, commonly to help with muscle damage from injuries.
- Sports massage—This is similar to Swedish massage, but it’s geared toward people involved in sport activities to help prevent or treat injuries.
- Trigger point massage—This massage focuses on areas of tight muscle fibers that can form in muscles after injuries or overuse.
The chemistry of sleep is relevant in relation to massage because it directly influences the body’s production of serotonin, which is essential for the production of melatonin. A study on back pain, published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, demonstrated that in addition to a decrease in long-term pain, subjects receiving massage experienced improved sleep and an increase in serotonin levels.3 Results were based on twice-weekly, 30-minute massages for 5 weeks, using these techniques:
- Kneading and pressing the back muscles
- Massaging both sides of the spine and hips
- Gliding rubs to the legs
- Kneading and pressing the thighs
In the supine position, participants received:
- Gliding strokes to the neck and abdomen
- Kneading of the rectus and oblique muscles that help bend the trunk of the body forward
- Rubbing of the legs
- Kneading of the anterior thighs
- Flexing of the thighs and knees
- Gentle pulling on both legs
In addition to other assessments, a sleep scale to measure quality of sleep and urine samples to measure levels of serotonin were used in the study.
Massage is a smart, healthy, and drug-free option that has helped many people overcome insomnia. Because melatonin influences the sleep stage of an individual’s circadian rhythm, a natural way of boosting serotonin is a positive sleep-inducing option. This connection calls for further research showing the direct effects massage therapy has on serotonin and sleep. In the meantime, the existing evidence is enough to recommend regular massages for sleepless patients.3
A growing number of healthcare professionals recognize the benefits of taking a multidisciplinary approach to patients in order to better identify the source of illness4—rather than simply treating the symptoms. At the same time, sleeping pills and pain killers should take a back seat to complementary and alternative forms of medicine, including massage therapy, for treating the whole person and improving outcomes.
1. AMTA; Massage Therapy Can Help Improve Sleep; October 2012; www.amtamassage.org/approved_position_statements/Massage-Therapy-Can-Help-Improve-Sleep.html
2. Mayo Clinic Staff; Insomnia; Mayo Clinic; www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/basics/complications/con-20024293
3. Cutler N; Insomnia, Serotonin and Massage; Institute for Integrative Healthcare; August 19, 2005; www.integrativehealthcare.org/mt/archives/2005/08/insomnia_seroto.html
4. Vanderbilt S; Sound Sleep; MassageTherapy.com; 2005; www.massagetherapy.com/articles/index.php/article_id/838/Sound-Sleep
5. Nerbass FB, et al; Effects of massage therapy on sleep quality after coronary artery bypass graft surgery; National Institutes of Health; 2010; www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21243280