Do you think of massage as an indulgence? Maybe, but did you know it can be a powerful tool for health and well-being – from easing pain and inflammation to soothing stress and anxiety. Find out about the practical benefits of massage – and what’s in it for you.  

This is a bit of my story. “As a Personal Trainer, being on my feet for 10 hours a day, picking up and putting weights down for clients, demonstrating exercises, taking part in my own personal training regime, being a father of 2, a husband and also running 2 businesses led me close to a physical and mental breakdown. I struggled to sleep at night and when I did bad dreams due to stress and overwork caused me to sleep restless. My exercise performance declined, causing my work performance to decline creating a negative cycle of repetition and as my stress got more my body reacted worse. I wasn’t keen on drugs or medicine and searched for an alternative form of healing. I discovered massage therapy and it saved me from a complete physical and mental breakdown.”

“When I’m anxious, I feel all clenched up, my joints ache, muscles spasm and my overall concentration levels drop.” My massage therapist untangles my knots, releases stress by allowing me to relax and focus just on me for the time I spent on that massage bed. This gives my brain and nervous system a chance to power down. Even when I’m short on money and time, I make sure to get my massage at least twice a month.”

“I am not alone; Regardless of the industry you work in, most of us are experiencing high levels of work stress and anxiety caused by different factors through a little thing called, “life in the 20th century”.  Despite massage’s reputation as a self-indulgent luxury, an increasing number of people are embracing it – not just as a “relaxing treatment”, but as a powerful therapeutic healing tool.

Americans currently log more than 114 million trips to massage therapists every year. Massage therapists are the second most visited complementary and alternative medicine providers behind chiropractors. All told, Americans spend up to $11 billion a year on massages. Statistics from the American Massage Therapy Association project that over the next five years that number is likely to grow considerably.

What you’re getting for your money, whether you realize it or not, is an access code of sorts – a healing key capable of opening the body’s stickiest locks.

Tight shoulders, sore lower back, desk jobs, driving in rush hour traffic and stress all creates patterns of muscle tension in the body. When muscles are chronically tense or tweaked, it can have a nasty effect on your body and mind.

Persistent musculoskeletal tension can restrict blood circulation and nutrient supplies to the body’s organs and tissues. As the connective tissue called fascia envelopes the muscle get increasingly dense and less mobile, it affects our posture and breathing. This build up of tension can lead to chronic hormonal, biomechanical and neurological problems of all kinds.

Massage interrupts such stress-inducing patterns and helps nudge the body back into a natural state of balance.

So what is massage exactly? Scientists who study its health benefits often use the therapy’s broadest definition as:

“The manipulation of soft tissue for the purpose of producing physiological effects.” That definition hardly does massage justice though, so read on to find out more about the subtleties of various types of massages and the powerful healing potential they might hold for you.”

ALLEVIATES ANXIETY

In conventional medicine, placebo controlled studies are the gold standard; however massage and most other forms of bodywork don’t lend themselves well to such studies. Therefore, scientific “proof” both for massage’s efficacy and its means of function, runs a bit thin. There is however more and more clinical evidence accumulating.

In 2004, Christopher Moyer, PhD psychology, published a meta-analysis on massage therapy research and found that, on average, research subjects who received massage had a lower level of anxiety than those who did not.

“My research consistently finds that massage does have an impact on anxiety,” says Moyer. “We don’t know exactly why, but people who get massage have less anxiety afterward.”

One popular explanation is that massage lowers the body’s levels of cortisol, the hormone notorious for triggering the body’s flight or fight response. “No matter how we measure cortisol – in saliva or urine – or how often, we always find that massage has a beneficial effect,” says Tiffany Field, PhD, a researcher at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.

Although Moyer is yet to be convinced of the cortisol connection, both he and Field agree that massage is potentially very therapeutic for what’s known as “state” anxiety. Unlike generalized anxiety disorders, “state” anxiety is a reaction to something you can pinpoint, such as a troubling or traumatic event, circumstance or setting.

Although more research is needed, says Moyer, “some experts reported that the alleviation of state anxiety could be as simple as the social and psychological environment where massage takes place.”

RELIEVES LOWER BACK PAIN

Aside from stress, if there is one thing that drives people to the massage table, it’s pain, especially lower back pain.

“Physical pain is like the alarm system of a house,” says Andrea Furlan, PhD, a clinical epidemiologist who specializes in massage at the Institute for Work & Health in Toronto. “With acute pain, like a burn or broken bone, the pain signal indicates something is wrong, but if you have pain every day, like chronic back pain, the alarm is malfunctioning. Massage may not be able to completely turn of the alarm, but i will lower the volume.”

One of the most well explained theories regarding pain are called the “Gate-control theory”. Proponents surmise that pain signals to the brain are muffled by competing stimuli. More specifically, pain travels on small diameter nerve fibres, while massage stimulates larger-diameter ones. Large nerve fibres relay messages to the brain faster than smaller ones. In essence, says Furlan, the sensation of the massage ‘wins’ over the sensation of pain.

A word of advice from fitness experts is: You will get more lasting, long term relief of lower back pain by supplementing massage with Isometric core exercises, such as planks, that focus on strengthening the muscles that support and guide the Spine’s movements.

Also read our blog post What You Need To Know About Inversion Therapy, and how it helps with the alleviation of back pain in combination with massage.

SOOTHE TENSION HEADACHES

Tension leads to headaches, so it follows that massage would help ease them. For many, trigger point therapy can prove particularly effective by targeting the areas around the body that is full of stress.

A trigger point is an area of tightly contracted muscle tissue. Trigger points in the shoulder and neck can relay pain to the head, thus if certain areas around your shoulder and neck are tight, your susceptibility to tension headaches go up. By reducing the activity of trigger points, we can reduce headaches. Massaging the neck and shoulders can disrupt trigger points by forcing apart the tightly contracted sarcomeres (proteins responsible for contraction) within the muscle cells; as a result, the cells relax and subsequently muscle tension dissipates.

RESTORES DEEP SLEEP

Roughly one in five people suffer from sleep deprivation, according to the American academy of Sleep Medicine. That is a big problem because lack of sleep alters the body’s biochemistry, making it more vulnerable to inflammation and a lower immune system and more sensitive to pain.

“The relationship between pain and sleep deprivation is a vicious cycle,” says Tiffany Field. “Your body doesn’t get the rest it needs to heal.” Although studies of massage therapy and sleep quality are few, the findings are that massage can promote deeper sleep and less disturbed sleep, especially in people with painful chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia. Massage therapy indirectly promotes good sleep by relieving pain and encouraging relaxation.

Because massage therapy stimulates the body’s parasympathetic “rest and relax” nervous system, it counters both physical and mental stress, giving you a better shot at enjoying the sleep you need to repair tissue during the night and to cope better during the day.

REDUCES SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION

It may seem surprising that physically manipulating the body can help counter a malady we associate with the brain. In his 2004 review, Christopher Moyer found that depression is particularly responsive to massage.

The average research subject who received massage had a level of depression that was lower than 73% of those who did not. These findings are on par with more conventional approaches to treating depression, including psychotherapy.

Field’s research on depression shows that massage boosts the body’s natural levels of serotonin, a substance that works “much like Prozac” in the brain. Her studies show that massage also encourages the brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine, a mood enhancer, as well as oxytocin, a hormone that generates feelings of contentment.

While the exact mechanisms are unclear, it seems evident that a good massage has a variety of positive psychological implications from receiving the nurturing touch or empathy of a massage therapist.   

LOWERS YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE

Given how positively massage affects the rest of the body and mind and how well it moderates stress, it probably comes as no surprise that massage therapy can also benefit the heart – in part by reducing blood pressure. In his meta-analysis, Moyer found that massage significantly lowers blood pressure, at least temporarily.

He notes that the findings are consistent with the theory that massage can trigger the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which helps prompt the body to return to its biomechanical balance and emotional ease after enduring a stressful event.

But perhaps the bigger take away here is that massage can help unlock the body’s healing potential, not by any one means, but rather by many. Epidemiologist Andrea Furlan points out; “Well before medicine or medical procedures were developed, people used massage to treat almost everything. Still today, when we get hurt, our first instinct is to rub.”

I for one don’t need any more evidence than my own transformation after nearly having a mental and physical breakdown. I don’t know if it is the touch, the warm table or the fact that I get to switch my phone of for an hour and just relax; what I do know however is that it was worth every cent and minute I spent on massage therapy.

I encourage you to do some more research after reading this and if you feel that any of this resonates with you, then please phone us at Vive studios and let us help you relax, unwind and rejuvenate.

Thank you for reading and look after yourself.

We look forward to meeting you,