From Egyptian tomb paintings dating back as early as 3000 BC to the writings of Hippocrates, evidence shows that massage therapy has long been used as a means to heal the body in a wide variety of cultures throughout history. (Source). Fast-forward to the modern United States: as people increasingly turn to alternative medicine to combat their ailments, researchers continue to add to the list of illnesses that may benefit from the healing touch of massage. While massage is commonly recognized as being a soothing antidote for stress and muscle aches, studies have proven it to offer relief for patients suffering from more serious – and often debilitating – conditions.
A 2008 study by the National Institutes of Health found that massage improved pain and depression among patients with advanced cancer. Another study conducted by researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center found that massage reduced patients’ anxiety, fatigue, and nausea. Massage may be particularly beneficial with women undergoing a lumpectomy or mastectomy for breast cancer. Prior to surgery, massage helps to relax tissue, while post-surgery massage techniques may reduce pain and swelling by assisting with lymph drainage. (Source).
While massage is more commonly known to alleviate back and neck pain, studies demonstrate that it is also successful in reducing the symptoms of arthritis. Among adults suffering from osteoarthritis of the knees, a 2006 study revealed that two Swedish massages per week led to substantial improvements in pain, stiffness, and function. These results were echoed in a study that examined pre- and post-massage levels of pain and anxiety, as well as grip strength, in patients with arthritis of the hands and wrists. (Source)
Anxiety and Depression
There is a biological explanation for the sense of calm that is frequently triggered by a massage. Studies show that massage significantly lowers levels of cortisol, a hormone linked to stress, while increasing levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which help to reduce depression. (Source). Just one massage session can provide relief to a person suffering from “state anxiety,” or a reaction to a particular situation, while individuals with a more general susceptibility to anxiety will likely need multiple sessions in order to experience improvement. (Source)
Aside from helping to relieve the anxiety and depression that many patients with chronic illnesses battle, massage is known to boost immune function. A 1996 study of HIV-positive individuals found that those who received daily massages for a month experienced an increase in “natural killer” cells, which are instrumental in fighting viruses. (Source).
Fibromyalgia is a condition characterized by symptoms such as widespread pain and stiffness, fatigue, headaches, depression and confusion. Studies have found that regular massage can help to alleviate these symptoms and improve overall quality of life. It is particularly important for fibromyalgia patients to communicate with their massage therapists regarding their symptoms, as massage that is too aggressive may aggravate pain. (Source)
As technology continually infiltrates our daily lives, many people spend an inordinate amount of time each day using a computer. Such overuse of the wrist can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, which causes painful numbness and tingling of the hand and wrist that can make it difficult to grasp objects. The odds of developing carpal tunnel are higher if a person suffers from conditions such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis. Fortunately for individuals plagued by carpal tunnel, a 2004 study conducted by the University of Miami School of Medicine found that massage therapy could reduce pain and improve grip strength. Evidence shows that patients may experience some relief after just one session, but as few as three to five sessions may result in long-term improvement. (Source).
For the millions of Americans who suffer from chronic migraines or tension headaches, regular massage may provide relief, potentially decreasing reliance on prescription and over-the-counter medications. Tension headaches are caused when the muscles of the face, head and neck contract, causing a painful tightening sensation. Vascular headaches, including migraines, occur when the blood vessels that supply the brain constrict. Massage can help to alleviate the pain associated with both types of headaches by relaxing muscle tension, improving circulation, and relieving stress and anxiety, which are common triggers for these conditions. (Source). Studies conducted on sufferers of both tension and migraine headaches have confirmed the efficacy of massage therapy, finding that participants who received regular massage experienced a reduction in the frequency and severity of headaches. (Source).
While the many benefits of massage may be enjoyed by everyone, it provides a particularly effective way for individuals suffering from the above health conditions to cope with their physical symptoms, as well as the stress that comes with battling a chronic illness.