Massage Medicine

For the Body and Mind

By Karrie Osborn

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2007.

Do you remember your first massage? Maybe someone gave you a gift certificate for your birthday and that’s what first brought you to your massage therapist’s door. Maybe the promise of pain relief had you consider therapeutic massage as an option for the first time. Or, maybe it was a quest for renewed health and “balance” that prompted your initial venture into the world of bodywork.

All of us come to massage for different reasons. And your reason today may not be your reason tomorrow. For some, that first experience of being touched with therapeutic hands is literally life changing. For others, the process of becoming one of the “massage initiated” is a slower evolution of understanding.

Whatever your experience, you know the value of massage in your life. And I’d be preaching to the choir if I tried to define that experience for you. Instead, let’s take a look at the myriad benefits of massage and see if some might fall on your list, too.

Massage, as a healing tool, has been around for thousands of years and in many cultures. Touching is a natural human reaction to pain and stress, and for conveying compassion and support. Healers throughout time have instinctually and independently developed a wide range of therapeutic techniques using touch. Many are still in use today, and with good reason.

Reinforced by Research

Research is showing us the enormous benefits of touch—benefits ranging from treating chronic diseases and injuries to alleviating the growing tensions of our modern lifestyles. Having a massage does more than just relax your body and mind—there are specific physiological and psychological changes that occur, even more so when massage is understood and utilized as a preventative, frequent therapy. Massage not only feels good, but it can cure what ails you.

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 at the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute (TRI), researchers have found improved weight gain and development in preterm infants and improved weight gain and decreased stress behavior in HIV-exposed infants. Full-term infants who receive massage also benefit with increased alertness and social behavior, less crying, and increased weight gain.

With more than one hundred research studies completed, TRI has also found massage to have positive effects on children with asthma (improved pulmonary function and less stress), arthritis (decreased pain), burn injuries (reduced pain and anxiety during wound dressings), cerebral palsy (decreased spasticity), Down syndrome (improved muscle tone), and leukemia (white blood cells increased), to name just a few.

Medical Might

Outside of the research arena, massage is being ever-more embraced by the medical community. Hospitals across the country have begun incorporating on-site spas into their paradigms at a quick pace. And it’s not unusual for a postsurgery or pain patient to now have the option of receiving therapeutic massage as part of their recovery process at many U.S. hospitals.

In hospices, where patients are living their last days, massage—for some—has become an integral part of the final transition. Finding safe, nurturing touch in the hands of a massage therapist helps many attain peace and comfort in their last stage of life. On the opposite end of that spectrum, massage of the most delicate nature works wonders in helping premature infants thrive during their daily, often painful struggles in neonatal intensive care units.

Stress Less

One of the most valuable aspects of massage is its role in reducing stress. Experts estimate that upwards of 90 percent of disease is stress-related. Massage and bodywork combat that exorbitant number by helping us remember what it really means to relax.

Relaxation is more than just the body unwinding; it’s also allowing the mind a chance to quiet itself and go inward. It’s what causes some clients to easily fall asleep on the massage table, while helping others “see” more clearly afterward. Finding a relaxed state lets the body slough off the shoulder-bearing burdens of the day, while letting the mind take a romp in the park, if you will. And that’s exactly what massage does.

Besides decreasing anxiety through relaxation, massage also lowers your blood pressure, increases circulation, helps you sleep better, and increases concentration. Like exercise, massage reduces fatigue and gives you more energy to handle the day’s stressful situations.
Massage is a perfect elixir for good health, but it can also provide an integration of body and mind, a valuable tool for our often disparate lives. By producing a meditative state or heightened awareness of living in the present moment, massage can provide emotional and spiritual balance, bringing with it true relaxation and peace.

So, Pamper Me

While we often downplay the pampering nature of massage in favor of its medicinal value, there is great benefit in treating ourselves to some self-care on this level. In fact, self-care plays a huge part in how healthy we’ll be with each passing year. Father Time can devour us quickly if we sit back and offer no sort of healthy defense to his ravages. Massage offers that defense in so many ways.

Taking care of ourselves can never be a bad thing, whether it be eating a diet filled with fresh, unprocessed foods, taking a week’s vacation, or bathing in a hydrotherapeutic tub of skin-enriching oils and scents. Massage is no different. In fact, there’s simply no way to separate the luxury or pampering from the healing and therapeutic, because they are one in the same.

More is More

Experts say the incredible benefits of massage are doubly powerful if taken in regular “doses.” Dr. Maria Hernandez-Reif—one of the lead researchers at TRI who, along with colleague Tiffany Field, has been proving the efficacy of massage for years—says massage is not a “drug” on which you can overdose.

While the TRI studies have shown we can benefit from massage even in small doses (fifteen minutes of chair massage or a half-hour table session), Hernandez-Reif says they know from their research that receiving bodywork two to three times a week is highly beneficial. And if resources of time and money weren’t an issue, Hernandez-Reif has the ultimate prescription: “I feel a daily massage is optimal.”
In a touch-deprived society, there’s no denying the power of healthy, therapeutic touch. Regardless the adjectives we assign to it—luxuriously pampering or medically therapeutic—or the reasons we seek it out, touch therapies can be powerful allies in your healthcare regime.

And you know what else? They simply feel good.