Like sleeping in, taking a beach day or enjoying some chocolate, many people look at massage as an indulgent way to treat themselves and de-stress. However, in addition to making you feel good, massage therapy – manipulation of the skin, muscles, tendons and ligaments through touch – is also associated with numerous health benefits. For this reason, massage therapy is sometimes covered by health insurance. Nevertheless, as with other forms of alternative medicine, not all of the health claims made of massage therapy are supported with scientific evidence. Read on to separate the facts from the fiction when it comes to massage.
A study conducted at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2010 concluded that a single 45-minute session of deep-tissue Swedish massage was associated with a heightened immune response among healthy adults. Participants’ post-massage blood tests showed increased levels of lymphocytes, immune system-boosting white blood cells. After getting massaged, volunteers also had decreased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone which can weaken the activity of the immune system.
As many as one-in-four Americans suffer from lower back pain, and it is estimated that 80 percent of Americans experience debilitating lower back pain at least once in their lives. However, long-term use of conventional medical treatments for lower back pain, such as opioid painkillers, can lead to organ damage and even addiction. Massage may represent a safer and more effective lower back pain treatment. A study published in the July 2011 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine found that among 401 middle-aged female participants with chronic lower back pain, those who received a 10-week series of either relaxation massage or structural massage (a more intensive type of massage) experienced less pain and improved functioning compared to those who received only “usual care,” such as painkillers, muscle relaxants and physical therapy.
While massage has been used to treat muscle soreness after strain or exercise for thousands of years, the mechanisms behind its effectiveness have not been well understood … until now. Research published in “Science Translational Medicine” in February 2012 examined the effects of a 10-minute massage on the thigh muscles of young, healthy male volunteers who had just completed vigorous exercise to exhaustion. By studying muscle biopsies, scientists found that massage reduced the production of cytokines, pro-inflammatory compounds associated with post-exercise muscle pain. Additionally, massage stimulated mitochondria, energy producers inside of cells responsible for cell function and repair. The study’s authors also noted that massage is a safer way to reduce muscle pain than taking anti-inflammatory medication.
A 2010 review of medical literature published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry identified over a dozen studies indicating that massage therapy can help reduce the symptoms of depression. Remember how massage reduces levels of stress hormone cortisol? This may explain massage’s antidepressant effect, as high cortisol levels are also associated with depression. Oxytocin, a “feel-good” hormone that reduces anxiety and increases social bonding, is also secreted during massage.
There is no scientific evidence indicating that massage rids your body of toxins or poisonous substances, such as pesticides or heavy metals. The body has its own ways of removing harmful toxins – these include the liver, kidneys and digestive system. Based on the “toxins” fallacy, massage recipients are often advised to drink lots of water after a massage to make sure any “free-floating toxins” that have been released during the massage are “flushed out.” However, even if you did have toxins in your bloodstream after a massage, drinking extra water would not help filter them out. In fact, drinking large amounts of water actually decreases the kidney’s function of filtering toxins out of the bloodstream.
Although some beauty spas, salons and massage practitioners offer “weight loss massage” services, massage has not been proven to burn fat or reduce cellulite. Massaging devices sold on TV or over the Internet are similarly ineffective at burning fat. The only safe and proven ways to burn fat are diet and exercise. That said, while massage itself won’t burn fat, a relaxing massage is a healthier alternative to more fattening de-stressors like sweets or alcohol. If getting a massage helps keep you from reaching for that chocolate cake, then by all means, make an appointment! But alas, you can’t have your cake and eat it too (pun intended).
Unfortunately, this is another myth. You cannot attain hypertrophy, or muscle growth, through massage. It is also untrue that certain forms of massage, such as tapotement (a fast, percussive movement used in Swedish massage) can be used to strengthen muscles, as muscle strengthening requires muscle growth. Although massage can help relax tight muscles, only resistance exercise can build muscle. But as with weight loss, getting a massage might indirectly influence muscle growth – you might be encouraged to engage in some muscle-building strength exercises if a massage eases your muscle pain, lower back pain, depression, etc.
Although there are concerns massage could be unsafe if you are pregnant, have cancer, or have another medical condition, there is scant evidence to support these fears. While it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before getting a massage if you have a serious health condition or are pregnant, massage therapy is generally quite safe, as long as it is conducted by a trained massage therapist. In fact, gentle massage has been proven to have beneficial physical and mental health effects for both people with cancer and pregnant women. A review of medical literature on the subject of massage safety published in the medical journal “Rheumatology” in 2003 uncovered some rare cases of adverse effects with massage, including nerve damage and hematoma, but determined that “the majority of adverse effects were associated with exotic types of manual massage or massage delivered by laymen, while massage therapists were rarely implicated.” The study went to conclude that serious adverse events from massage are “probably true rarities.”
To minimize any risks associated with massage, make sure your session is conducted by a certified massage therapist, and get your doctor’s approval prior to getting a massage if you have unexplained pain, blood clots, bone fractures, severe osteoporosis, cancer, burns, open wounds or rheumatoid arthritis, or are pregnant.