Everybody likes to get a good back rub. But why does massage feel so good? Is there any scientific reasoning behind it? What are the health benefits of massage? How about the risks? Some of the answers are astounding. Let’s find out why.
The Science Behind the Good Feeling
From animals to children to elderly adults, we see evidence that living beings like to be touched. Your cat rubs up against you, and your dog begs to have its tummy rubbed. It almost like a drug. Being touched can generate the release of endorphins, which are the human feel-good hormone. Endorphins are a natural form of morphine produced by your body in response to physical touch.
The likely mechanism behind this is that nerve endings in your skin send signals to your pituitary gland and other brain centers. The basic message that your body sends is, “This feels good. Keep seeking this.” One can imagine that this response occurs since caring touch comes from those that like you. It doesn’t matter if you’re a family of chimpanzees or humans ― being around caring individuals is good for you.
When you get a good quality massage, it affects you on an emotional level as well. Research shows that meaningful touch stimulates the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex, which is linked to feelings of reward, compassion, safety and trust. While this might be part of the endorphin pathway, there are probably other mechanisms involved as well (more on this later).
Some research even shows that touching Alzheimer’s disease patients can have significant benefits. The studies reveal touch improves relaxation and interpersonal ties while decreasing symptoms of depression.
Changes at the Gene Expression Level
The benefits of massage extend even further as revealed by research conducted at McMaster University. In this study, 11 young men underwent vigorous exercise and then received massage therapy. The researchers then took biopsies of the participant’s quadriceps muscles 10 minutes and 2.5 hours after the massage was complete.
The results revealed a twofold gene-level benefit from massage on human mRNA activity. When you get a post-workout rubdown, your muscle cells increase the release of a protein called PGC-1alpha. This protein quickens the rate of muscle repair.
Another observation made is that the levels of another protein called NFkB decreased. This is a good thing since low levels of NFkB mean less inflammation. This study confirms something humans have known for centuries ― a good massage does wonders for you after a workout.
What Are the Different Kinds of Massage?
Not all massage techniques are the same. Most massage therapists use a combination of methods. The most common categories are:
- Swedish massage: This is a popular technique of massage that uses gentle strokes, muscle pressure, deep circular rubbing, vibration and soft to vigorous tapping.
- Deep massage: Incorporates slower, more-powerful rubbing to penetrate to deeper muscle and connective tissue layers. This method is commonly used for athletes recovering from injury.
- Sports massage: A variant of Swedish massage, it’s typically used by athletes to prevent or treat muscle injuries.
- Trigger point massage: This technique targets zones of tight muscle fibers (“knots”) that may appear after injury or strain.
Are There Other Health Benefits to Massage?
Besides being excellent for the active athlete, massage is also used to treat several health disorders. The pathways we described earlier ― endorphins, brain activation, gene-level changes and so on ― help explain why massage is good for you. Still, other mechanisms continue to be studied. The range of benefits is quite extensive. Here’s a partial list:
- Alleviates anxiety and depression: As mentioned, massage makes you feel good emotionally. Other supporting evidence shows massage lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
- Lowers inflammation: The gene expression level study shows how this works after exercise. This might mean people who experience muscle inflammation for other reasons might benefit from massage too.
- Helps low back and arthritis pain: Everybody knows massage reduces muscle pain but did you know the benefits can last up to six months? That’s what researchers at the Group Health Research Institute found after participants received massage therapy for 10 weeks. Also, a Yale University study discovered that massage could help reduce knee arthritis pain.
- Reduces chronic pain: One study showed that massage helped chronic pain sufferers where other therapies had failed to improve symptoms.
- Improves relaxation: Another reason why massage helps relaxation is related to sleep. According to research, deep sleep delta waves are increased during a massage.
- Fights infection: A Cedars-Sinai Medical Center showed that massage affects white blood cell counts, cortisol levels and cytokine levels, all of which help boost immune system function.
- Prevents migraines: Massage therapy can lead to fewer distress symptoms, less pain, more headache-free days and fewer sleep problems. Some of this might be due to an increase in serotonin levels.
- Reduces blood pressure: In one study, adults who had been diagnosed as hypertensive received 10 30-minute massage sessions over five weeks. During the study, participant blood pressure decreased.
- Helps pregnancy: A research study reported that for pregnant women, massage helped improve mood and sleep while decreasing back pain.
Can Massage Make You Superhuman?
There are some unexpected benefits to massage that everyone should know about. For example, after a single, 15-minute chair massage, people were more alert. Some even likened it to a runner’s high. This all makes sense since we know that massage causes the release of endorphins.
Massage also helps improve blood flow which tightens up loose skin and stimulates lymphatic drainage. This improved circulation helps remove toxins and deliver oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the skin. This may help preserve a youthful appearance.
Lastly, some research shows that regular massage therapy may have antioxidant benefits. This means that processes associated with aging may be slowed down thanks to massage. So, if you want to keep alert and stay young, massage may be one of your best bets.
Can Massage Be Harmful?
In nearly all cases, massage therapy has no adverse side effects. Still, some people might experience some soreness the next day after treatment. In the rare event of more serious adverse effects, massage can lead to:
- New musculoskeletal or organ injuries
- Worsening of existing injuries and chronic pain problems
- Delayed medical care for some illnesses
- Nerve damage
Again, harm due to massage is very rare, but there have also been reports of neck damage after a massage session. This underlines the importance of going to a well-trained therapist. Also, it might be wise to consult with a doctor or physical therapist before seeking massage therapy for new pain not associated with normal exercise soreness.
One very rare case involved an older man that underwent a vigorous massage treatment. The treatment was so severe that it caused significant muscle breakdown. This led to a release of a substance called myoglobin from broken down muscle cells. Too much myoglobin can lead to kidney damage and, in the most severe cases, kidney failure.
Other Rare Massage-related Injuries
- Stretching injuries: Stretch is sometimes used by massage therapists. Although mostly safe, it can lead to muscle strain or tear.
- Fractures: Although extremely rare, broken bones are not unheard of with deep tissue or vigorous massage. Care should be taken, especially in the elderly population.
- Blood clots: It’s not that massage causes blood clots, but it can dislodge them from the deep veins of the legs. These clots can then travel to the lungs and cause serious breathing problems.
Despite these reports, massage is an incredibly beneficial and safe treatment for a variety of disorders. It’s also a great post-workout recovery method. There’s a reason that professional sports teams all have a dedicated masseuse on board.
Massage Therapy Is Safe and Even Life-changing
The pituitary gland is a tiny pea-sized organ located at the base of the human brain. Although small, this organ is vitally important. One of its chief secretions is a chemical called oxytocin. Some have called this hormone the “love hormone” since it appears to have a role in bonding. For instance, when you snuggle with a loved one, your pituitary gland pumps out more oxytocin. The hormone might even play a role in maintaining parent-child bonds and fidelity between mates.
It’s been shown that massage therapy increases the release of oxytocin. So, theoretically speaking, massage can:
- Make your happier
- Help you sleep and be more alert
- Reduce pain and increase resistance to injury
- Boost your immune system
- Slow the aging process
- Improve intimacy and loyalty
Sounds pretty much like superhuman qualities. Time to get a good back rub, don’t you think?
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A Preliminary Study of the Effects of Repeated Massage on Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal and Immune Function in Healthy Individuals: A Study of Mechanisms of Action and Dosage
Effectiveness of focused structural massage and relaxation massage for chronic low back pain: protocol for a randomized controlled trial
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