The Science Behind Massage Therapy

Hot stone massage therapy. (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)
Hot stone massage therapy. (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

What do you do when you have tired aching muscles and joints? What do you do when you have stiff neck, low back pain and aching feet?

Your instinct would be to take some painkiller or phone your massage therapist. Painkillers are cheap, quick (you don’t need an appointment for that) and handy. But painkillers can have side-effects which may hurt your health. Massage therapist makes you relax, feel good, provide longer lasting relief of pain and discomfort. But they are not cheap and they are not available instantly when you need them. An aggressive massage therapist can leave you with sore muscles.

Massage involves the application of varying degrees of pressure on muscles and soft tissues to reduce tension and pain, improve circulation, and encourage relaxation. There are many kinds of massage therapies. From therapeutic massage to tantric massage. Massage therapy is performed by trained, licensed massage therapists.

A Swedish massage is the most common type of massage. It can be slow and gentle (relaxation), or vigorous and bracing (therapeutic), depending on what the therapist wants to achieve. It comprises five basic strokes (stroking, kneading, friction, percussion, and vibration). The movement is rhythmic and free-flowing. Like music or waves in the ocean. Surely, it puts me to sleep!

Therapeutic massage can be quite intense to achieve medical benefits for long-term or chronic issues. The most common examples would be a deep tissue massage or sports massage. The therapist uses more pressure and cross-fiber friction in order to get knots (also known as adhesions) to release.

It is estimated that 18 million individuals undergo massage therapy annually in the U.S., making it the fifth most widely used form of complementary and alternative medicine. Many clinical trials have proved that long-term massage therapy reduces chronic pain and improves range, but the biological effects of massage on muscles have remained unclear.

In a recent (February, 2012) study from McMaster University in Hamilton and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, Calif., found that massage therapy triggers biochemical sensors that send inflammation-reducing signals to muscle cells. This reduces pain just like the painkillers.

Second important thing massage does is to send signals to boost the ability of muscles’ cells to make new mitochondria – the energy producing centres within cells – which can affect muscle endurance and recovery.

Third important finding debunked one long-held belief about massage. Some exercise specialists have assumed that massage aids the recovery of fatigued muscle by helping to flush away lactic acid, a byproduct of exercise. Researchers noted there was no difference in the lactic acid levels in the massaged and unmassaged leg.

Other studies of interest are: Massage Eases Low Back Pain in Randomized Controlled Trial (July 4, 2011), Adults Demonstrate Modified Immune Response After Receiving Massage (Sep. 8, 2010), Massage Therapy May Have Immediate Positive Effect On Pain And Mood For Advanced Cancer Patients (Sep. 15, 2008), Alexander Technique Offers Long-Term Relief For Back Pain (Aug. 19, 2008).

Finally, the importance of human touch is well established. Experiments of World War II and later experience in Eastern European orphanages, where babies who were fed and maintained in bed, but not held or given the benefit of human touch, showed that babies who were denied human touch withered and died.

So, massage provides therapy on two levels: physical and psychological. Add meditation to this and you can elevate yourself to a spiritual level – whether you are a believer or a non-believer in a higher being. If I can stay awake during massage therapy, then surely, there is hope for me as well.

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