You may think that getting a massage is a self-indulgent practice — or a luxury — but it can actually deliver a whole host of health benefits.
Massage therapy involves manipulating the soft tissues of the body, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). There are many different forms of massage in both Eastern and Western medicine, including shiatsu, Swedish, trigger point, neuromuscular, and more, says Polly Liontis, a licensed massage therapist with the NorthShore University HealthSystem Integrative Medicine Program in Glenview, Illinois. Each of these may be used in different ways, depending on your wellness and health goals.
When it comes to massage, stress reduction is one of the main reasons that people make an appointment. But the therapy may also extend beyond relaxation to support your conventional medical care routine, in line with your doctor. Therapists with more extensive training in specialty areas may also administer medical massage, typically in a clinical and rehabilitative hospital setting, and with the approval of your healthcare provider.
“Most people are getting a massage in order to take care of themselves in some way. I firmly believe that, if used in a healthcare setting, massage is healthcare,” says Beret Loncar, a licensed massage therapist and owner of Body Mechanics Orthopedic Massage in New York City.
In fact, nearly half of the people who received a massage in 2021 got it for health or wellness reasons, and 63 percent of those massage goers said that the therapy was part of a treatment plan from a doctor or medical provider, according to data from a market survey by the American Massage Therapy Association.
In short, for many people, massage is also a tool to help diminish pain, improve mental health, and more. Read on to learn more about the health benefits of therapeutic massage.
Possible Wellness and Health Benefits of Massage Therapy
The research below looks primarily at the potential health benefits of massage therapy conducted in medical settings for specific health concerns. Massage is also offered for healthy clients in nonclinical settings, such as a spa, for relaxation and muscle health, according to past research and the Cleveland Clinic. If you plan to add massage therapy to your medical or well-being care plan, consult your doctor to discuss what may be appropriate for you.
1. May Reduce Stress and Help Improve Mental Health
Over time, regular massage may help you better manage stress. Loncar talks about “allostatic load,” which is a buildup of chronic stress that bubbles over and affects your health in various ways, according to research. Massage can help you physically and mentally relax, potentially relieving some of that pressure, so that stress doesn’t increase to unmanageable amounts, she explains.
In addition to everyday stress reduction, massage may help address mental health concerns. In a past meta-analysis of 17 randomized controlled trials, massage therapy was associated with lessened symptoms in people living with depression, compared with control groups.
A later review published in 2018 in Focus noted that, while more research is needed, massage may affect brain circuitry, autonomic nervous system activity, and hormonal and immune systems in people with psychiatric complaints, making it a potential therapy to use in addition to doctor-recommended care (i.e., cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes).
2. May Help Alleviate Pain
One in five adults in the U.S. experience chronic pain, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to NCCIH, while research shows that therapeutic massage may not fix chronic pain over the long term, some people find that it helps ease their discomfort and makes living with pain more bearable.
“Being touched by a licensed therapist and working on relaxing your body can be helpful for pain management,” says Loncar. Letting go of muscle tension, as you allow a professional to administer physical effort during a massage, may help you find a sense of deeper relaxation. What’s more, stress also plays into pain, and if massage therapy is improving your stress levels, it may also help ease that discomfort as well, she says.
There’s some evidence that people with pain may benefit from massage. A meta-analysis published in August 2022 in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice found that manual soft-tissue therapy (which includes massage and myofascial release) may help alleviate chronic neck pain by temporarily decreasing inflammation and relaxing the nervous system.
There’s also some evidence that massage may help improve pain, stiffness, and function in people who have knee osteoarthritis, in the short term (over eight weeks), according to a prior meta-analysis published in the same journal. Why? Massage may improve blood supply and lymphatic flow to the localized area, among other benefits.
In a narrative review, massage therapy significantly reduced pain and increased function across a variety of chronic pain populations, including people with low-back pain, neck and shoulder pain, and knee pain. That said, the authors also noted that massage may not be as effective as physical therapy or exercise, and more randomized controlled trials are needed to confirm whether massage therapy is effective for specific chronic pain concerns.
For its part, the NCCIH remains more skeptical, noting that the research on massage for pain is still limited and its effects may be short term, yet the agency also notes that the risk is generally low. So, as for any complementary approach, it is best to talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of massage and how it may fit into your conventional care plan.
3. May Aid Sleep in Those With Medical Conditions
Depending on why you can’t sleep, massage may help make it easier to unwind and drift off if you deal with everyday stress and tension. Medical massage has also been used in an array of medical and hospital settings for influencing z’s.
For example, insomnia is a common symptom of menopause, and past research suggests that massage therapy may help treat the sleep disorder in postmenopausal women, in addition to conventional medical care.
What’s more, in people who have cancer — and thus are more likely to experience fatigue and sleep discomfort — 90 to 120 minutes of massage therapy (over a period of days or weeks) may be associated with better sleep quality and ability to stay asleep for longer periods of time, compared with control groups, notes a systematic review published in 2021 in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship. Why? Massage may improve relaxation and mood and reduce pain.
Even patients in the intensive care unit seemed to sleep better after a 10-minute back massage, and they also experienced improved breathing and lessened anxiety, according to a study.
And finally, aromatherapy paired with hand and foot massages may potentially help improve sleep quality in people with heart disease — important to note, since sleep problems are common in this group, per a study published in 2019 in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice.
4. May Assist in Sports Recovery
At many sporting events, you might notice a massage tent. Athletes experiencing performance-related soreness may hop up on the table for a massage, hoping that it will help them feel better and recover quicker. And they might be right.
In a past meta-analysis, getting a massage after strenuous exercise (in this case, 24, 48, or 72 hours later) decreased muscle soreness and improved muscle performance, compared with those who didn’t receive a rubdown. The researchers found that massage decreased inflammation and muscle damage, and it improved recovery.
A later meta-analysis published in 2020 in BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine concluded that while sports massage didn’t improve measures of strength and endurance, it did help improve flexibility scores (by 7 percent) and decrease muscle soreness after exercise (by 13 percent).
5. Medical Massage May Help in Surgical Recovery
If you’re in pain from cancer surgery, ask your healthcare team if you should seek out medical massage. Many medical centers provide integrative medicine services, including massage therapy from board-certified massage therapists. In a prior meta-analysis, 9 of 12 studies showed that people felt less cancer pain after massage therapy, compared with no massage therapy or conventional care. One of the best types of massage therapy for cancer pain relief? Foot reflexology.
In addition, massage therapy has been found to be slightly helpful in reducing pain and anxiety in people who are undergoing or recovering from surgery, compared with other treatments, according to a past review and meta-analysis. Human touch via massage therapy may change how the body perceives pain and help facilitate healing, noted the authors.
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