Are Massages Beneficial? What We Know, and What We Don't

By Erik Lief — Oct 25, 2017
Do massages stimulate a chemical reaction in the body? Is there a scientific basis to explain why customers feel better, or relaxed, or energized by the experience? While massages feel great and produce short-term satisfaction, specific evidence supporting claims of longer-term health benefits is harder to come by.  
The health benefits of massage are hard to determine. (Via Google Images)

If you've never had a massage, chances are that due to the activity's immense popularity someone you know has. And those who swear by massages, and how good they make them feel, often create the impression that it's an integral, indispensable component to better health.

However, when you get past the obvious – that someone kneading all of your muscles for upwards of an hour makes you feel good – specific evidence supporting beneficial health claims is hard to come by.

Do massages stimulate a chemical reaction in the body? Is there a scientific basis to explain why customers feel better, or relaxed, or energized by the experience? After reviewing published material on the subject, the answers, while often encouraging, are less than definitive. Which means someone looking for clear-cut guidance on the matter will be disappointed. That said, here's what we know, and what we don't – beginning with their popularity.

Precise figures are hard to come by, but between July 2015 and July 2016 roughly 57 million American adults had at least one massage. However, that's according to survey data collected by the American Massage Therapy Association, an industry trade group based in Evanston, IL, which may cast doubt on the accuracy of the figures.

Now as for the reasons to seek treatment, they vary. But as for effectiveness the Mayo Clinic states massages have "possible health benefits" and that "some studies have found massage may be helpful" in treating tissue or muscle injuries; managing stress; relieving headaches, and even addressing insomnia and anxiety. And of course, many devotees without having a specific health issue get a massage simply because it makes them feel good.

As for the body's chemistry, a 2010 study conducted by Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, examining subjects' blood samples before and after a Swedish massage, determined that even one 45-minute session decreased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, while it also decreased arginine vasopressin, the hormone which can contribute to higher cortisol levels. 

Also weighing in is the National Institutes of Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Its position is that while there are many potential, short-term benefits to massage therapy, the agency cannot come out and issue a clear recommendation. 

"A lot of the scientific research on massage therapy is preliminary or conflicting, but much of the evidence points toward beneficial effects on pain and other symptoms associated with a number of different conditions," writes the NIH, on its webpage "Massage Therapy for Health Purposes." "Much of the evidence suggests that these effects are short term and that people need to keep getting massages for the benefits to continue."

When it comes to the topic of managing pain, it's important to note the equivocation. The NIH often employs the word "may" stating, "massage may be useful for chronic low-back pain," it "may help with chronic neck pain," and "may help with pain due to osteoarthritis of the knee." Massage therapy has also been advised for those with cancer, fibromyalgia and HIV or AIDS, but again, it "may help improve the quality of life," but "the evidence is not definitive."

And then there are those with specific conditions or maladies who should avoid massages. The Mayo Clinic cautions that the therapy presents health risks for those who have: 

  • Bleeding disorders or take blood-thinning medication
  • Burns or healing wounds
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Fractures
  • Severe osteoporosis
  • Severe thrombocytopenia

Do massages, with heavy pressure exerted on muscles and joints, break up alleged toxins in the body as many people believe? There's no evidence of that. Do they cause the release of so-called "feel-good" hormones? Perhaps, but it's not known for sure. Some even postulate that massages enhance a person's immune system, but that's also unsupported.

While all of this is a mystery, perhaps even a greater mystery is that with so many Americans interested in massage therapy, why isn't more research being done? 

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