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What are the Benefits of Massage Therapy?
While the last decade has witnessed an awakening in massage therapy research, there is still much to be done. One barrier to further gains in public and medical community acceptance is the relatively modest base of research on the efficacy of massage therapy. Intuitively, many users find massage helpful, but some nonusers continue to wait for proof of scientific effectiveness.

While the body of knowledge is admittedly skimpy in relation to that of mainstream medicine, consumers seem to perceive the risk associated with trying massage as very low and the prospective rewards as immediate and tangible. That judgment has led to increased trial, and positive experiences during such trials have substantially enlarged the audience for regularly scheduled massage.

Dr. Janet Kahn, a massage therapist and executive director of the Integrated Healthcare Policy Consortium, "very few people were thinking or speaking about research on therapeutic massage and bodywork 10 years ago. Three institutions emerged ... to change that picture. The first was Touch Research Institute (TRI), founded in 1992 ... at the University of Miami. Researchers at TRI have conducted more than 100 studies on a wide variety of potential massage applications. Most of these investigations are relatively small pilot studies. While not establishing definitive effects of massage, they have identified many areas in which massage shows potential and should be further investigated."

She notes that the 1999 convening of the Massage Research Agenda Workgroup provided a way for massage therapists and bodyworkers who may not have the training or the inclination to conduct research to nevertheless influence the types of research being done. Kahn also notes the contributions of The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes for Health.

For the complete 2002 article by Kahn on the state of massage research, click here.

In September of 2006, Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals pledged $15,000 as a lead grant to help gain medical recognition of massage therapy as a treatment for low-back pain, which afflicts millions of Americans. That figure represents one quarter of those needed to advance a review under the auspices of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a unit of the National Institutes for Health. Called a "consensus conference," the effort involves testimony and a research review by an independent panel.

Benefits of Massage
  • A 1986 Touch Research Institute study at the University of Miami showed preterm babies who received massage therapy had 47 percent greater weight gain and six-day-shorter hospital stays than infants not receiving massage.

  • Oncology patients show less pain, fatigue, nausea, anxiety and depression following massage therapy, according to a study by Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, 2004, and a report in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 2002.

  • Massage therapy reduced chronic back pain in relation to other complementary techniques, according to a 2000 report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

  • Massage therapy is a safe and effective way to reduce pain and improve function in adults with osteoarthritis of the knee, reports a 2006 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

  • Research published in a 2007 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise says muscular pain relief from massage was even more effective when provided by massage therapists with a greater number of hours of massage training.

  • Research has shown massage reduces symptoms from carpal tunnel syndrome. The Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 2004.

  • Massage therapy has been shown to strengthen the immune system, according to research published in the Journal of Neuroscience, 1996, and Psychosomatic Medicine, 2000.

  • The Complementary Therapies in Nursing and Midwifery reported in 2004 that stroke patients showed less anxiety and lower blood pressure when massage therapy was used.

  • Pediatric healthcare staff report increasing hospital use of complementary and alternative medicine, including massage and energy work (Advance for Nurses, April 2007.)

  • The American Journal of Public Health reported in 2002 that massage therapy reduced the frequency of headaches.

  • Massage therapy is effective is reducing postsurgical pain, according to Pain Management Nursing, 2004.

  • Alcohol-withdrawal symptoms were lessened in connection with massage therapy, according to The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2005.

  • A study by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami showed less stress and improved performance for a small sample of employees (against a control group), who had twice-weekly, 15-minute massages in the office.

  • Distress during burn treatment was reduced in children in connection with massage therapy, according to a 2001 article in the Journal of Burn Care & Rehabilitation.

  • The Journal of Gerontological Nursing reported in 1999 that Alzheimer's patients showed reduced pacing, irritability and restlessness after neck and shoulder massages.

  • Fibromyalgia patients receiving 30-minute massages had less pain, depression, anxiety, stiffness, fatigue and sleep problems, according to a 1996 Journal of Clinical Rheumatology report.
While noting that more research is needed, the Mayo Clinic website suggests massage therapy benefits the following conditions:
  • Anxiety. Massage reduced anxiety in depressed children and anorexic women. It also reduced anxiety and withdrawal symptoms in adults trying to quit smoking.

  • Immune system. People with HIV who participated in massage studies showed an increased number of natural killer cells, which are thought to defend the body from viral and cancer cells.

  • Juvenile diabetes. Children who were massaged every day by their parents were more likely to stick to their medication and diet regimens, which helped reduce their blood glucose levels.

  • Labor pain. Massage during labor appears to reduce stress and anxiety, relax muscles and help block pain. Some medical professionals believe it also reduces tearing, shortens labor, reduces the need for medication and shortens hospital stays.

  • Pain. Pain was decreased in studies of people with fibromyalgia, migraines and recent surgeries. (Also supported by a 2005 Consumer Reports readership survey in which deep-tissue massage was voted an effective treatment for back pain, arthritis, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia.)

  • Self-esteem. Direct touch is thought to boost the self-esteem of people with physical disabilities and terminal illnesses, as well as providing reassurance to children with pronounced physical disabilities.

  • Sports-related soreness. Massage may reduce muscle soreness through increased blood flow to muscles.

  • Stress. Studies show massage contributes to reduction of stress hormones in the workplace and in conjunction with medically related treatments.
Anecdotal Evidence/Preliminary Findings
Although massage therapists and bodyworkers do not diagnose or medically treat clients, there is significant anecdotal evidence and preliminary research suggesting massage therapy also is helpful when it comes to:
  • ADHD in children.
  • Age-related disorders.
  • Alcohol withdrawal.
  • Asthma.
  • Attentiveness and alertness.
  • Autism.
  • Cancer-related fatigue.
  • Depression.
  • Diabetes.
  • Exercise and stretching for atrophied muscles, reducing muscle-shortening for those with restricted range of motion.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Hypertension.
  • Improving circulation by pumping more oxygen and nutrients to tissues and vital organs.
  • Increasing joint flexibility.
  • Infertility.
  • Multiple sclerosis.
  • Neck and cervical spine pain.
  • Reducing muscle spasms and cramps.
  • Reducing postsurgery adhesions and edema; reducing and realigning scar tissue after healing has occurred.
  • Releasing endorphins that reduce pain.
  • Relieving migraine pain and decreasing the need for medication.
  • Sleep disorders.
  • Spinal-cord injury.
  • Sports performance enhancement, care of injuries and recovery from workouts.
  • Stimulating the lymph system, the body's natural defense against toxic invaders.
It's important to note there are some conditions where massage is not recommended. For example, massage is contraindicated in people with certain forms of cancer, phlebitis, some cardiac problems, skin conditions and infectious diseases. Practitioners and consumers are strongly encouraged when there is any doubt to ask about specific health conditions and seek a doctor's consultation and permission before providing or undergoing services.

Treating the Spirit
Massage also provides another therapeutic component largely absent in today's world: tactile stimulation or, more simply, touch.

Many adults have reported cathartic experiences on the massage table. As a therapist carefully unwinds a client's stressed and tired muscles, the therapist may very well be unwinding the taut, pent-up emotions that one doesn't always have time to process in the middle of the day. And the feeling of being touched in a safe, caring, compassionate manner can be a very powerful experience, reminding the client that he or she is not alone in the world.

As studies continue to reveal the link between kinesiology and physical and emotional health, the effects of massage will be further documented. However, one need only experience a good massage to know it's beneficial to body and soul.

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