By Shirley Vanderbilt
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/Winter 2007.
On the surface, it may seem that the best part of a massage is the wonderful feeling of relaxation and being touched, but the benefits are more than just skin deep. For almost two decades, researchers at the Touch Research Institute (TRI) at the University of Miami School of Medicine have documented the specific physiological and psychological changes brought about by massage therapy. These studies have opened a window of opportunity for alternative treatment of chronic diseases, injury, stress and anxiety, pain, and depression, as well as influencing approaches to pregnancy, labor, and infant care.
Established in 1992 with grant funding by Johnson & Johnson, TRI was the first center of its kind devoted to the study of the effects of touch for promotion of health and treatment of disease. At the helm is director Tiffany Field, PhD, a renowned authority in touch research whose pioneering work in this area both inspired and fueled the project. TRI research teams have produced more than one hundred studies on people of all ages, from newborns to the elderly. Their efforts have not only established a growing body of scientific knowledge from which therapists can apply their craft, but have also had a profound effect on those whose lives have improved as a result.
As a society, we are touch-deprived and this can lead to disease or emotional dysfunction. From the cradle to the nursing home, tactile stimulation and the emotional assurance of caring touch bring about a sense of well-being and security. In numerous studies conducted on massage for infants, TRI researchers have found improved weight gain and development in premature infants, improved weight gain and motor behavior in cocaine-exposed infants, and improved weight gain and decreased stress behavior in HIV-exposed infants. Full-term infants also benefit with increased alertness and social behavior, less crying, and increased weight gain.
TRI researchers have found that massage for pregnant women results in fewer complications for mom and baby and reduced rates of prematurity. When massage was provided during labor, moms also experienced less anxiety and need for pain medication, a shorter labor, and a shorter hospital stay.
Chronic disease in children has been the focus of many studies at TRI. Using parents to provide nightly massage, researchers have noted remarkable improvement in control of symptoms for children with diabetes, asthma, and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. The nightly session between parent and child also reduce anxiety for both and enhances the parent’s relationship with the child during necessary home treatments and tests. Other childhood conditions benefit as well. With regular massage, autistic children have shown a decreased aversion to touch. Those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have become less anxious and improved their on-task behavior in school. Teens with anorexia and bulimia have become less anxious, shown improvement in mood, and developed a more positive body image.
While most TRI studies are conducted at the Miami center, a recent Dominican Republic project involved massage therapy for HIV-positive children not receiving antiretroviral medications. The results of this study, in which the children’s immune systems were significantly boosted, provides hope for treating millions around the world who have no access to standard HIV drugs. Similar benefits, including increased immune function and decreased anxiety and depression, have been found for U.S. adults diagnosed with HIV.
TRI studies frequently involve measurement of stress hormone levels, and what researchers have found is that massage has a direct effect on lowering these hormones and reducing the body’s physiological reaction to stress. In patients with cancer, this is an important part of supporting the immune system. Stress has been associated with lower counts of natural killer cells and a decrease in their activity, which in turn increases opportunity for tumor growth. As with the HIV studies, massage has also shown to benefit women with breast cancer by increasing their natural killer cells and boosting immunity, thus expanding the potential application of this modality to support and enhance healing in life-threatening illnesses.
In studies with adults suffering from chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, and chronic fatigue syndrome, massage has been shown to reduce symptoms and improve quality of life. In addition, these subjects experienced improved sleep, decreased depression, and diminished anxiety—results that are common to many of the TRI studies.
Overall, the research conducted through the years at TRI has had a profound effect on the lives of many people, not just those involved in the studies, but people like you and me. As we learn more about the benefits of massage, we increase our options on the path to health and well-being. Whether facing a major illness or just seeking a good night’s sleep, we know we can find a helping hand from massage therapy. And thanks to the efforts of the researchers at TRI, our options continue to grow.