I often get emails asking for my opinion about bodywork. While I’m not necessarily one to easily dismiss any treatment conventional wisdom would devalue, I also approach this arena with some healthy skepticism. The question becomes what’s effective and what’s simply “woo-woo,” to use a somehow unmatchable term. I’ll leave much of that specific discussion to you all today, but I did want to examine one modality that has more research behind it than most, even if that body of studies is still somewhat patchy. Most people have had a massage sometime in their lives. We certainly have our own opinions about its impact. Unless we were truly unlucky, most of us likely came away with a pretty good impression. Many of us have gone back many times since with perhaps a sizable financial and personal investment in the therapy – maybe even with a specific therapist. (It’s funny how people guard the availability of their favorite massage provider even as they clearly want to extol their endless virtues.) Our personal anecdotes aside, what does existing science say about the benefits of massage? For what conditions/circumstances is it especially effective? Can it benefit healthy as well as ill people? Let’s take a look.
A review of massage related studies claims the therapy appears to result in lower cortisol levels and higher dopamine and serotonin measures across many studies with different types of subject groups. Research related to the impact of massage on blood pressure has in some cases shown significant results. Not surprisingly, massage appears to be effective for low back pain, chronic neck pain and knee pain that is the result of osteoarthritis. In terms of exercise science, studies (while somewhat mixed) generally show that massage is helpful for muscle recovery. As little as ten minutes of massage, as one study indicates, can curtail inflammation and encourage the growth of new mitochondria.
Study results are mixed when it comes to ascertaining recommendations for frequency. A biweekly massage protocol in one study resulted in higher measures of oxytocin and lower levels of both arginine-vasopressin and adrenal corticotropin hormone (ACTH) when compared to a weekly protocol. However, the subjects who received biweekly treatment also demonstrated measures suggesting a higher production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. It’s unclear how many ancillary factors could be at play, but clearly more studies are needed to further explain this picture.
Still other research looks at the psychological and pain related benefits of massage. One study examined the effect of massage on a group of grieving relatives who had recently lost loved ones. Subjects shared that the massage times were a great consolation and source of both energy and rest during the transition. Not surprisingly, the comforting effects of massage work with other kinds of pain and distress. Massage appears to significantly reduce depressive symptoms and in another study have immediate impact on advanced cancer patients’ perception of pain as well as mood. Patients recovering from surgery respond better to a combination of massage and pain medication than they do to medication alone. It’s interesting how this archive study noted that massage used to be regular protocol following surgeries but is limited now with the shifts in hospital efficiency protocols.
Children, not surprisingly, seem to respond significantly to the therapy in a variety of circumstances. From pre-term babies who gain more weight with regular massage to children who experience less nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy with massage, the therapy can offer clear physical advantages. Finally, research measuring the impact of massage on infants’ melatonin secretion even indicates that parents can use massage to help coordinate their babies’ circadian cycles with environmental cues. Why don’t we see this nugget in more infant care books?
All this said, what’s the take home message?
If I ever become ill with any of the aforementioned conditions for which massage apparently offers therapeutic benefit, would I take advantage of massage? Of course! If I’m healthy now with no presently manifesting conditions and am cognizant that research is scant regarding full and confirmed benefits for healthy individuals, would I take advantage of massage – and consider it an act of health rather than indulgence? Darn straight.
Sometimes we don’t need a mountain of randomized, controlled research to tell us what has the natural power to fill our well or enhance our well-being. You see, I’m a big believer in the basics of health – you know, those things like a solid, primal eating strategy, lots of Grok style exercise, quality sleep, and ample sun. That said, I think every choice we make around our well-being matters. To use the bank account metaphor here, I’m going to make as many deposits (and as few withdrawals) as possible. Every choice to feel good naturally is a deposit. While the research on play and outdoor time and massage might be in its relative infancy, I personally think there’s a decent enough scientific paper trail to support what already makes good Primal sense. I’ll never get a definitive measure for the cumulative impact of every massage I’ve received, but I can tell you every single one felt life-giving at the time. However major or modest a shift it made physiologically, each offered a ripple effect that continued days if not a couple of weeks past the event. Sometimes it was better sleep, more emotional resilience, additional patience, better (mental and physical) flexibility or just a happier outlook. My wife tells me I’m more laid back and agreeable – that much nicer to be around – after a massage. Maybe that point alone is the ultimate Primal logic.
Do you invest in massage or other kinds of bodywork? What do you feel it’s added to your health or well-being? Share your thoughts or stories about what massage can do for general wellness or particular health issues you’ve dealt with. Thanks for reading, everyone.