The Healing Benefits of Massage

Everyone knows that massage is good for your body. However, studies show that it's also good for your mind. Research indicates that the power of touch provides benefits beyond relaxation and relief from muscle tension and that massage may actually reduce the need for medications that induce sleep, increase attention span, and alter moods.

When you receive a massage, your nerves are affected as well as your muscles. The slow, deep pressure from a therapist's hands reaches receptors in the skin which respond differently than if they were touched with the same pressure from a mechanical device. Many of the benefits to the nervous system are believed to be caused by stimulation of the vagus nerve. This cranial nerve regulates the production of hormones which can lower the heart rate, decrease anxiety, enhance the immune system, increase attentiveness, and cause more efficient absorption of food.

In people with chronic conditions, the state of their mind affects their physical health as much as the state of their body. Massage relieves depression and anxiety while improving the way a person views his or her body. Depression, in particular, may accompany long-term conditions, and unless there is relief from depression, there may not be significant improvement in the diagnosed disease

Selma Nemer, a clinical psychologist in Saratoga Springs, says "When we get over-involved in our thoughts, we are in our heads, not in our bodies. Massage is a way to get us back into a resilient place in our bodies."

For many months after the September 11 attacks, massage therapists were on hand around the clock for rescue workers just as they had been after the Oklahoma City bombing. In Oklahoma, state medical examiners observed that 15 minutes of massage improved the morale of the rescue workers better than an hour or two of psychological counseling.

Studies done at the Touch Research Institute in Miami, Florida are finding that massage therapy helps many conditions including eating disorders, Alzheimer's, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), autism, and chronic fatigue. Massage also helps relieve symptoms of patients suffering from chronic conditions like fibromyalgia, Multiple Sclerosis, diabetes, and Parkinson's disease. Long-term health conditions often cause stress and depression. Attempting to cope with and accept the disease can actually make symptoms worse. In these cases, massage provides beneficial changes in their bodies, as well as positive changes in their moods.


In depressed patients, a routine of 30-minute daily massage showed results after only 5 days. The control group viewed relaxing videos. The people who received massage were less depressed and showed lower levels of the stress hormones, cortisol and norepinephrine. Although both groups said they felt less anxious, only the massaged group displayed a decrease in anxious behavior and lowered pulse rate. Night-time videos of children involved in the study revealed improved sleep patterns.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Massage showed healing results in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. Depression, anxiety, and pain decreased immediately after one session with a massage therapist versus touch stimulation from a mechanical roller. These results remained consistent after five weeks. Sleep improved and fatigue was reduced, although the underlying reason for these results has not yet been explained.

Eating Disorders

Findings were particularly significant for patients suffering from eating disorders. Massage reduced symptoms of depression, a key component in the successful treatment of bulimia. Even more importantly, massage raised patients' awareness of their bodies, an essential part of resolving conditions regarding poor self-image. In bulimic and anorexic patients, massage therapy was a more successful treatment than using prescription drugs because medication typically doesn't stay in the digestive system long enough to be absorbed in adequate amounts.

In one study that included adolescents with anorexia and bulimia, eating habits improved, and the patients gained a more realistic image of their bodies. After receiving massage twice a week for one month, patients had lower anxiety, lower stress hormone levels, and higher dopamine levels than other patients who only received group therapy.


Massage becomes an effective additional treatment in conditions such as ADHD and autism which include hyperactive behavior. When hyperactivity is reduced, patients can improve in psychological and behavioral areas, mainly by increasing their ability to concentrate. Interestingly, autistic children, who commonly don't like being touched, did not mind the slow steady strokes from massage.

Treatment of ADHD is made more difficult since it is sometimes combined with anxiety, depression, learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. Treatment usually includes drug therapy and behavior modification that is reinforced by parents and teachers. In one study, adolescents were provided with massage versus relaxation therapy. After two weeks, teachers rated the massaged group as less fidgety, and noted that they spent more time on assigned tasks.

Typically drugs are used to regulate ADHD patients. But there are drawbacks. Undesirable side effects may occur such as disruption of sleep patterns. In some cases, there is no response to the drugs. It is suggested that massage could be an alternative treatment for ADHD.

Massage's relaxing effects may actually boost mental performance when the patient is alert. These effects are seen in the increased focus of ADHD sufferers. Massage can also be used to prevent further decay in cases where mental faculties cannot be recovered. Frequent massage reduced agitation in Alzheimer's patients and decreased the signs of senility.

The positive and wide-ranging effects of massage are continuing to be studied. With little or no side effects when compared to other treatments, it has generally been believed that massage is good for what ails you; anything from a serious disease to a heavy heart. And now research is beginning to prove it!

About the Author

Lesley Waters is a licensed massage therapist and certified Reiki practitioner in Saratoga Springs, New York. She also holds a B.S. from Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY.


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