There is significant evidence supporting the inclusion of massage therapy for many important patient health treatments, including those for chronic pain management (such as back pain, headache, carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis, neck and shoulder pain, fibromyalgia, and hospice care), behavioral health treatment (anxiety and stress, depression, PTSD, and substance use disorder recovery), rehabilitation/physical training (athletic training/injury treatment, ergonomics and job-related injuries, cardiac rehab, joint replacement surgery, and scar management), and acute medical conditions (cancer management, post-operative pain, lymphatic drainage, and maternity and newborn care).Bauer, et al., (2018)
I’ll start by saying this – massage is incredibly powerful and beneficial, both physically and mentally. There is a lot of outdated information surrounding massage, which means there can be a lot of contradictions and misunderstandings. However, Massage Therapy has an enormous number of benefits to your health and wellness, whether it’s for relaxation or rehabilitation. Regular massages can help to improve range of motion, flexibility and mobility in the soft tissue; prevent injuries, reduce stress as well as possibly improve the symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. Additionally, massage therapy can help with the healing of scars and also potentially reduce the symptoms experienced from cancer treatments.
One of the main reasons people seek massage treatments is for pain management, as well as injury prevention, muscular dysfunction or rehabilitation. Most of the clients that walk into my clinic have aches and pains, whether they’re short term or long term. Massage therapy relieves tension and tightness in the tissue by warming and loosening the muscles, helping to “unstick” adhesions within the muscle fibres, which can otherwise restrict the normal muscle function. Techniques are used to reach through the layers of fascia, as well as superficial and deep muscles, so that the benefits can reach every level of the soft tissue. Massage does not only help the muscles, as other soft tissues including tendon and ligaments also benefit from treatment.
Scarring on the skin usually runs into the deeper tissue layers, which often reduces mobility, becomes stiff and even painful. Scars can have all sorts of causes, from accidents to surgery, and this means that massage for scars needs to be specific to the type of scar, it’s age and it’s stage of healing. Massaging scar tissue can help to “unstick” adhesions to deeper tissue layers, similar to how massage reduces adhesions in the muscle fibres. Treatments can also softness, flatten and smooth out scars, as well as potentially reducing irritation, itching and painful sensations in the tissue. The mechanism behind the benefits of scar massage come from the release of specific hormones, as well as chemicals that activate scar remodelling.
Mental and physical relaxation is also a popular reason for massage, and it is great for some all round me time. Whether it’s a lavender infused Indian Head Massage or a soothing Hot Stone Massage, massage treatments can help clients to fully unwind. Muscles relax, tension melts away and the mind slows down and becomes peaceful and quiet. The long term effects of this is improved sleep, reduced stress and also pain relief. Most people can relate to clenching their jaw, scrunching their shoulders and tightening fists in response to stress, and often this is a completely subconscious reaction – we don’t even realise when we’re doing it. Sometimes we need to slow down and allow ourselves the time to feel calm.
The mental benefits of massage extend beyond relaxation, as it can also be incredibly helpful for those with mental health illnesses. Massage is often overlooked when it comes to mental health illnesses, however the effect of a firm comforting touch cannot be overstated. A study by Rapaport et al (2018) has proven that massage increases levels of relaxation, reduced salivary cortisol (cortisol is a stress hormone), as well as reduced anxiety, but also an increase in alertness post-treatment. Massage also boosts the parasympathetic nervous system – which is the part of the nervous system that deals with slowing down and relaxation.
Oxytocin, the hormone involved in social connections, stress management and calmness, is also boosted by massage treatments. Whether it’s anxiety, depression or more complex mental health illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, massage can potentially ease symptoms by inducing a state of calm and relaxation in an otherwise loud and busy mind. It is important to note here that massage is not a curative treatment.
When it comes to cancer, there is the age old myth that massage spreads cancer. Research around this is limited, but overall it seems that while massaging directly on a tumour needs to be avoided, massage in itself does not appear to propagate the spread of cancer. As long as the massage therapist has received specialist training in oncology massage, a cancer patient can safely receive massages that may help with symptomatic relief from the side effects of medical treatments, reduced tension in the muscles and relaxation.
Cancer patients often face a great deal of isolation and touch deprivation, as well meaning friends and family become afraid of hurting them. Massage helps to provide some much needed comfort, as well as potentially helping to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression that are often seen in cancer patients. Again, like with mental health, massage is not curative – it does not treat the actual cancer, but rather it is aimed at supporting the individual, helping to reduce the symptoms of the often invasive treatments, improving sleep and mental wellness.
So there you have it, some real world benefits of massage. Massage is incredibly powerful, especially with regular treatment it is incredibly beneficial for everyone – not just sportspeople. In a future article I will be doing “myth busting” surrounding all of those weird claims that people make about massage that aren’t as true as some people would have you believe.
- Bauer, et al., (2018) Massage therapy in integrative care and pain management. Illinois, USA: American Massage Therapy Association
- Rapaport, M., Schettler, P., Larson, E., Carroll, D., Sharenko, M., Nettles, J. and Kinkead, B., 2018. Massage Therapy for Psychiatric Disorders | FOCUS. [online] Focus.psychiatryonline.org. Available at: https://focus.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.focus.20170043
- Cancer and Massage Therapy: Is what they’re saying true? – Susan Findlay
- Does massage spread cancer? | Cancer Council
- Massage or other touch therapies – Macmillan Cancer Support
- Massage therapy | Complementary and Alternative Therapies | Cancer Research UK
- Massage Therapy for Psychiatric Disorders | FOCUS (psychiatryonline.org)
- Are the antidepressive effects of massage therapy mediated by restoration of impaired interoceptive functioning? A novel hypothetical mechanism – ScienceDirect
- Can Massage Therapy Enhance Mental Health? (amtamassage.org)
- Therapeutic massage for pain relief | Harvard Health Publishing (health.harvard.edu)
- How massage affects the parasympathetic nervous system | The Massage Rooms
- Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and massage therapy | Integrative Healthcare
- The Benefits of Scar Massage | British Skin Foundation
- 10 Massage Therapy Myths Busted | East Coast Polytechnic Institute