How Massage Therapy Works

messageThe power of touch is not completely understood, even by massage therapists and researchers. Massage can affect the musculoskeletal, nervous, and circulatory-lymphatic systems, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Tiffany Field, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Miami School of Medicine, says that many of its positive effects seem to be mediated by increasing relaxation and decreasing stress hormones such as cortisol. Massage also fulfills our need to be touched—a dying art in fast-paced American culture.

What to Expect From the Different Types

Here are the most common types of massage, according to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA):

  • Swedish—Considered the most common type, this involves long strokes, kneading, and other techniques on the more superficial muscle layers, along with active and passive joint movement. It aims to improve blood circulation and range of motion and to relieve muscle tension.
  • Deep tissue—Designed to release tension by administering slow strokes and deep finger pressure, deep tissue is so named because it focuses on the deeper layers of muscle tissue. The strokes and pressure either follow or go across the grain of muscles and tendons.
  • Shiatsu and acupressure—These are both finger pressure massage systems based on Oriental healing concepts. The idea is to treat special points along meridians, invisible channels said to carry energy flow within the body. The pressure is intended to unblock the energy and thereby enhance body health.
  • Sport therapy—Sports massage focuses on warming up an athlete to reach optimal performance, reducing soreness after a workout, or helping to rehabilitate injured muscles.

What the Studies Found

Medical journals include dozens of reports on massage therapy and its benefits. In a review article published in the American Psychologist, Field discusses some of the most promising studies. In one study of 40 full-term infants, ages 1-3 months born to teen mothers, some infants were massaged for 15 minutes, while others were rocked. The massaged infants cried less, had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva, and were more likely to go to sleep after massage than after being rocked. In another study, burn victims who had massage before debridement, a process used to treat severe burns, had lower anxiety levels and lower stress hormone levels than those who weren't massaged. Other studies have suggested that massage helps relieve low back pain, migraines, and fibromyalagia, among other conditions.

Of course, massage isn't a total panacea. It can be inappropriate in some cases, warns the AMTA, such as in those with the vein inflammation known as phlebitis, some skin and cardiac conditions, and some cancers. Anyone with these health problems should consult their physician before undergoing massage therapy.

How to Find a Massage Therapist

Massage therapists are licensed in over 30 states and in some local jurisdictions, according to the NCCAM. Asking a therapist about licensure is a good first step to finding a competent practitioner. Here are additional questions worth asking:

  • Where did you receive your training?
  • Are you a member of the American Massage Therapy Association?
To find a qualified massage therapist, you can ask your doctor for a referral or use the AMTA's locator service at http://www.amtamassage.org/findamassage/locator.aspx.