According to ancient Chinese writings, massage has been used for healing purposes for over 4,000 years, and it continues to be an important part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) today. But in the United States, massage therapy was relatively unknown until the 1850s when two physicians introduced Swedish massage into their practice.
While massage therapy gained in popularity through the turn of the century, the rise of modern medicine soon pushed massage into the realm of “fringe medicine” until the 1970s when alternative medicine, including massage, experienced a resurgence.
Today, there are more than 125,000 massage therapists practicing in the U.S., but in the minds of many Americans, massage is a guilty pleasure—not a healing art. For the skeptics who demand more empirical evidence before they call massage “medicine,” here are some of the therapeutic benefits of massage that have been confirmed through scientific study.
- Clinical studies show that massage relieves chronic back pain more effectively than other treatments (including acupuncture and conventional medical care.)
- Massage therapy has been shown to reduce chronic and situational depression, anxiety and stress. Study participants have included those facing serious surgery, battling a chronic illness such as cancer, or palliative care.
- Blood tests reveal that massage affects the body’s immune response by lowering hormones associated with stress and reduces cytokine proteins related to inflammation and allergic reactions. Massage has also been shown to increase protective white blood cell counts among women battling breast cancer.
- Athletes receiving a specific form of muscle massage experience faster muscle recovery at the cellular level as demonstrated by muscle biopsies.
- Multiple studies indicate that massage greatly improves symptoms of osteoarthritis of the knee. Patients experience less pain and stiffness and better range of motion with regular massage.
- Autistic children, who usually don’t like to be touched, show less autistic behavior and are more social and attentive after receiving massage therapy from caregivers.
- Mothers and their newborns benefit from massage. Moms feel less depressed and have a better emotional bond with their babies and newborns tend to cry less, and are more active, alert, and sociable. Infants who receive massage regularly may also sleep better, be less gassy or colicky, and have more regular digestion.
- Premature babies who receive massage therapy have been shown to gain weight faster than preemies who do not receive therapy.
- Massage has also been found to helpful for many other health conditions including: PMS, insomnia, asthma, chronic constipation, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, high blood pressure and elevated blood sugar.
How Massage Works
There are many different forms of massage and body work techniques—each designed to achieve a specific goal. Some stimulate while others calm the body’s muscles and tissues.
When a practitioner massages soft tissue, electrical signals are transmitted both to the local area and throughout the body. These signals, in combination with the innate healing properties of touch, help heal damaged muscle, stimulate circulation, clear waste products via the lymphatic system, boost the activity of the immune system, reduce pain and tension, and induce a calming effect.
Massage also works as a natural pain killer and mood elevator by stimulating the release of endorphins and reducing levels of stress hormones.
Does Massage Pose Any Risks?
While massage is generally regarded as safe, women who are pregnant should be cautious about receiving a massage and only use therapists trained to perform massages on pregnant women. Those with diabetes should also be cautious as massage can lower blood sugar levels.
People with these conditions should avoid massage:
Using a Massage Therapist
Massage therapy is slowly being integrated into traditional healthcare settings, and it is also offered in the community through private practitioners.
Whether the cost is covered by health insurance depends on your insurance carrier and plan, the health condition being treated, and the license or certifications held by the therapist. You may want to speak with your doctor and insurance company before seeking treatment. They are also the best sources for providing a referral for a qualified massage therapist. Otherwise, be sure your therapist is qualified by asking questions about his or her background:
- Training. Many states require that massage therapists have a minimum of at least 500 hours of training in order to be certified. Although requirements vary by state, seek a therapist who has trained at least 500 hours.
- Experience. Ask whether the therapist has ever worked with patients with your particular health condition(s).
- Meeting state requirements. The American Massage Therapy Association website offers a state-by-state guide to requirements for therapist education and experience.
- Licensing. If the therapist is licensed, the initials LMT (Licensed Massage Therapist) or LMP (Licensed Massage Practitioner) will appear after his or her name.
- Certification. In states that do not offer licenses, the minimum qualification you should look for is CMT (Certified Massage Therapist).
To find a qualified massage therapist in your area, these organizations may be helpful:
University of Maryland Medical Center
Wall Street Journal