As good as a back rub from your sweetie feels, sometimes you need the hands of a professional.
That's because a growing body of evidence suggests muscle therapy provides a long and varied list of health benefits. In fact, more people get their muscles kneaded and rubbed for medical purposes than they do for relaxation or pampering, according to a recent survey. You know massage helps reduce stress and tension; here are some more potential benefits, based on research compiled by the American Massage Therapy Association:
Relieve chronic low-back pain.
Nearly everyone at some point has back pain that interferes with work and daily activities; if it lasts more than three months, it's considered chronic. One study showed people with long-lasting low-back pain who got a one-hour Swedish or structural massage once a week for 10 weeks felt and functioned significantly better and faster than those who received standard medical care; they also used less over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs. Other research found massage helps with osteoarthritis of the knee pain, fibromyalgia and nerve pain, among others.
A review of studies that measured the stress hormone cortisol in people before and immediately after massage found the therapy lowered levels by up to about 50%. Massage also increased serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that help reduce depression. That may play into why massage has been shown to help people with anxiety disorders, to increase calm before surgery and to decrease stress and depression in cancer patients; in fact, a recent Turkish study found back massages given during chemotherapy significantly reduced anxiety and fatigue.
Reduce blood pressure.
Women with prehypertension (or slightly elevated blood pressure) who received three 10-minute Swedish massages a week for 10 total sessions lowered their pressure more than patients who relaxed in the same environment but with no massage, according to a small study. Other more recent research on 35 older adults showed therapeutic massage also helped reduce blood pressure, as well as improve stability.
Massage may give the immune system a boost by helping to increase activity levels of natural killer T cells, which fight off viruses and tumors. Past, preliminary science suggested full-body massage enhanced immune function of women with breast cancer; a newer but also early study on premature babies came to a similar conclusion: Those who received massage therapy had more active killer immune cells (and gained weight faster), compared with infants in the control group.