Massage Therapy: The Power of Touch
Massage, an ancient treatment described as early as 3000 BC, has taken a back seat to pharmaceuticals and other modes of care. But that's all changing as scientific studies suggest massage therapy can relieve stress and pain, enhance immune function, curb anxiety, and speed athletes' recovery.
In 1976, Tiffany Field's baby girl was born prematurely. Today, her daughter is 23, strong and healthy. Field credits massage therapy.
While pregnant with her daughter, Field, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Miami School of Medicine, was studying whether massage therapy—the power of touch—could help premature babies grow and thrive. Her own daughter, lovingly given massage therapy in the early weeks of her life, became part of that proof.
Since then, Field has published her findings in respected medical journals. With her colleagues and other researchers, she also has evidence that massage therapy is beneficial for reducing pain, enhancing immune function, enhancing alertness, and helping athletes recover from their injuries.
Massage is shedding its alternative, fringe medicine reputation and has come to be regarded as a valuable complement to other treatments.
How the Therapy Has Grown
Field and others have also witnessed a growing acceptance of massage therapy. It's one of the fastest growing so-called alternative or complementary therapies, according to a landmark report on alternative medicine published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"Physicians are jumping on the bandwagon," says Field. She regularly takes calls from doctors asking about the treatment. One of the most recent was from a doctor in a burn unit who wondered about the value of massaging wounds.
In the United States, a typical one-hour full body massage costs about $60, according to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA). A number of health and managed care plans are beginning to cover prescribed massage therapy, according to the association.
Massage therapy is a fringe benefit at some offices. Employees of Futuredontics in Santa Monica, CA, which operates the 1-800-Dentist referral service, are entitled to a weekly 10-minute clothed massage in the company's special massage therapy room. Workers always exit the massage room smiling, says Diane Lindley, a company spokeswoman.
At major metropolitan airports, including Denver, Seattle, and Chicago, stressed-out travelers can get a 10 or 15 minute shoulder massage for about a dollar a minute at terminal massage bars.
"There are physical, mental, and spiritual benefits to massage," says Maria Grove, founding director of The Touch Therapy Institute in Encino, CA, a massage instruction school. "It takes you to another level of dealing with your life and your problems."
How It Works
The 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). Field 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 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.
When medical school staff and students got 15-minute chair massages during lunch, they reported being more alert after lunch and experiencing runner's high-like feelings.
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.
What the Future May Hold
Other applications of massage therapy are under study. Grove has visited Swedish nursery schools, in which young children are taught to lovingly massage each other. They are calmer and more cooperative, she says, than their American counterparts. That can only happen, she says, when children overcome a fear of being touched and are taught the difference between good and bad touch. Massage is also being studied as a way to quell aggression in violent teens—with a long-range goal of reducing the crime rate.
Grove has taught "Massage for Parents" workshops in which she teaches parents how to massage their children for a variety of benefits, including increasing "peace and calm" hormones.
How to Find a Massage Therapist
Massage therapists are licensed in 39 states and in some local jurisdictions, according to the NCCAM. Typically, massage therapy students must complete 500 hours or more of education from a recognized school and complete a licensing exam.
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.
The American Massage Therapy Association
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Canadian Massage Therapist Alliance
The American Massage Therapy Association website. Available at: http://www.amtamassage.org. Accessed April 8, 2008.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov. Accessed April 8, 2008.
The Touch Therapy Institute website. Available at: http://www.touchtherapyinstitute.com.
Last reviewed February 2008 by Ryan Estévez, MD, PhD, MPH
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