I used to consider the occasional massage a blissful, self-indulgent luxury. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more convinced that regular rubdowns are an important prescription for physical and mental well-being.
In fact, there is a growing body of research confirming that massage can be good medicine. “We now know that massage therapy is not just for pleasure, but has significant psychological, physiological and biochemical effects that enhance health,” says Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School, which has conducted more than 100 studies showing that massage’s benefits can include positive effects on depression and anxiety, sleep, stress hormones, immunity and pain relief.”We have enough data to say the evidence is there that this really does help with back pain in particular,” confirms physician Josephine Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. She also cites a study published this year in the online journal PLoS One that found that patients with osteoarthritis of the knee who got a weekly 60-minute Swedish massage experienced significant pain reduction and improved function compared with those who received standard care with no bodywork; the gains persisted even after treatment ended.One of the most popular complementary and alternative therapies in the United States, massage can be especially advantageous for avid exercisers. A study published this year found that when a small group of men exercised to exhaustion and then had a massage, it led to decreased production of cytokines, compounds that play a role in inflammation and pain, and it stimulated cell recovery — a double dose of benefits.The key to an optimally beneficial massage is the proper amount of pressure, says Field. “When you get a massage, you stimulate pressure receptors under the skin, which leads to an increase in vagal activity,” she says, referring to the vagus, one of the 12 cranial nerves that emerge directly from the brain. This can produce a wide range of positive effects — including lowering heart rate and blood pressure, increasing immune function and reducing stress hormones.
No pain, still gain
Just remember that it doesn’t have to hurt to help: “One recent study found that the combination of touching and the manipulation of soft tissues was equally effective in terms of pain reduction for lower-back problems whether it was through gentler Swedish massage or deeper structural massage,” Briggs says.No matter what venue or type of bodywork you choose, it’s worthwhile to seek out a trained, licensed and experienced therapist. If you are dealing with a specific health issue, you might get a recommendation from your doctor. Overall, however, there is very little potential downside to massage, aside from minor side effects such as temporary pain or discomfort, bruising or an allergic reaction to massage oil (and, of course, the cost, which can be considerable).”Massage has a very favorable risk-benefit ratio,” says Briggs. “Sure, occasionally somebody pushes a little too hard, but by and large we think of these as quite safe interventions.”