The word “massage” might bring to mind images of sumptuous spas and expensive health clubs, but the benefits of massage therapy make this practice much more than a luxury. While researchers are just starting to effectively document the benefits of massage therapy, there is growing evidence that its uses go far beyond simple relaxation.
To fully appreciate massage therapy as both an art and a science, it’s helpful to understand a little bit about both aspects. Let’s start with the science.
The Science of Massage Therapy
During a massage, a therapist applies light to moderate pressure to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. This pressure causes two distinct physical responses: increased circulation and tissue relaxation. The physical manipulation of soft tissues allows the body to deliver blood and nutrients more efficiently, improving cellular health and musculoskeletal function. Muscle relaxation can help to reduce nerve compression, potentially relieving pain and improving organ performance.
While massage therapy is difficult to study scientifically, there is a growing body of evidence that supports its use as a method to combat headaches, insomnia, sports injuries, digestive disorders, and fibromyalgia pain.
The Art of Massage Therapy
Along with its physical benefits, for many people massage therapy also elicits a psychological or emotional change. Part of this effect is due to a phenomenon known as the relaxation response. When the pain-relieving effects of physical manipulation are combined with a safe, caring touch, many people experience an involuntary physical shift. Their muscles relax, their blood pressure lowers, their breathing and heart rate slows, and their production of stress hormones decreases.
Some researchers theorize that this relaxation response might go as far as to increase serotonin production, helping to improve mood and reduce stress. While more research is necessary to determine if this connection does exist, a 2008 study did find that patients experienced better pain control and a higher mood in response to massage therapy compared to touch alone, suggesting that massage could be an effective supplement to more traditional medical techniques.
The relaxation response depends on a level of trust and comfort between therapist and patient. This human connection is where massage therapy transforms into an art. Regular sessions with a therapist with whom you feel comfortable is a key component of getting the most out of this practice, making it worth the time to find the right therapist for you.
Massage Therapy as Part of a Larger Treatment Plan
Massage’s human connection makes it an art, but researchers are beginning to discover and document in a scientific way what chiropractic physicians, massage therapists and their patients have learned through long hands-on experience.
A 2008 analysis by the Cochran Collaboration found evidence that massage therapy can be helpful in relieving non-specific low-back pain, making it a worthwhile addition to some courses of chiropractic treatment. If you are seeing a chiropractor regularly for chronic back pain, consider asking if massage therapy might be worth adding to your regimen. Your chiropractor can advise you on how massage might impact your specific condition, as well as recommend other therapies to help eliminate your pain.