I used to consider the occasional massage a blissful, self-indulgent luxury. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more convinced that regular rubdowns are an important prescription for physical and mental well-being.
In fact, there is a growing body of research confirming that massage can be good medicine. “We now know that massage therapy is not just for pleasure, but has significant psychological, physiological and biochemical effects that enhance health,” says Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School, which has conducted more than 100 studies showing that massage’s benefits can include positive effects on depression and anxiety, sleep, stress hormones, immunity and pain relief.
“We have enough data to say the evidence is there that this really does help with back pain in particular,” confirms physician Josephine Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. She alsocites a study published this year in the online journal PLoS One that found that patients with osteoarthritis of the knee who got a weekly 60-minute Swedish massage — a popular, gentle type of bodywork that may include kneading, pressing or stroking the muscles — experienced significant pain reduction and improved function compared with those who received standard care with no bodywork; the gains persisted even after treatment ended.
One of the most popular complementary and alternative therapies in the United States, massage can be especially advantageous for avid exercisers, says licensed massage therapist Rebekah Owens, an instructor at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. In addition to improving range of motion, “post-workout massage helps reduce spasms and cramping, helps relax and soften the injured, overused, tired muscles, and helps to stretch and exercise weak, tight and atrophied muscles, which is also great in hospital settings for patients who are bedridden,” she explains.
Just the beginning
Science is only beginning to clarify the complex mechanisms behind such benefits. A study published this year found that when a small group of men exercised to exhaustion and then had a massage, it led to decreased production of cytokines, compounds that play a role in inflammation and pain, and it stimulated cell recovery — a double dose of benefits.
“[This work] suggests that with vigorous exercise, there may be activation of muscle inflammatory pathways — we all know that if you really overdo it with a long run you will be aching next day — and massage may help that,” observes Briggs, who was not involved in the research. “It might be partly from the manipulation of the muscle fibers, and partly from stimulating circulation to the muscle.”
Experts stress that massage isn’t just a physical experience: “We talk about these as mind and body therapies because part of the way they work is through physical mechanisms, but the touch of another human also has a reassuring, relaxing effect on a person’s emotional state that may impact how the body processes or responds to pain,” says Briggs, who notes that it can be a challenge to disentangle the two in research.