Therapeutic touch soothes anxiety, promotes growth in
premature infants, and heals in so many different ways.
If you’ve never had a massage, don’t put it off — not
for a minute. In our stress-worn world, an allover body
massage might be just what you need.
Just ask Ms. Connelly, a plucky 60ish southern lady. Her
fallopian tube cancer became evident only after it had
spread through her pelvis. The weeks when she’s getting
chemotherapy are tough; her energy is zapped. She’s making
the best of the cards dealt her.
"I have my achy days," she tells WebMD. "I get these
knots in my neck, in my back."
Massage helps relieve that tension, but it also does much
more, says Becky Getz, RN, CMT, who is Connelly’s massage
therapist at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville,
Cancer patients like Connelly are often dehydrated, and a
chemotherapy treatment causes areas of the body to become
stiff, Getz tells WebMD. "I think massage helps bring
chemotherapy, fluids, into the body a little more gently."
In fact, Getz works with many cancer patients long after
their treatment — soothing the dryness, tightness, and pain
that surgery leaves behind. "Sometimes the effects of cancer
last for years," she tells WebMD.
That’s not all. Studies have shown that massage helps
with all sorts of conditions — arthritis, gastrointestinal
problems, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms. Alzheimer’s
patients and kids with autism and attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may also benefit from massage.
Even more interesting: Kids with diabetes have more
normal blood sugar levels after massage. Premature babies
gain weight faster when they’re massaged. Massage eases
depression, keeps depressed mothers from giving birth too
early, and prevents postpartum depression.
Massage does much more than relieve everyday stress, and
studies are proving it.
Ancient Health Practice Gaining Credibility
Massage is one of the oldest of health practices, found
in ancient Chinese medical texts written some 4,000 years
ago. Hippocrates advocated massage in the 4th century BC, as
have doctors since then — until the 1930s and ’40s, when
the practice was virtually abandoned as medicine became
During the 1970s, massage went through a slight
resurgence — one that’s finally taken hold in more recent
years as healthcare practitioners become more attune to
ancient healing practices — and as Medicare and insurance
payers have begun covering it.
"We believe in it in our clinic," says Ka-Kit Hui, MD,
director of the Center for East-West Medicine at UCLA School
of Medicine. "We believe it does more than just help people
In Chinese medicine, massage is called acupressure, he
tells WebMD. In essence, massage and acupressure both work
with the body’s own healing systems — the nervous system,
blood vessels, lymphatic system.
"The concept is to remove stagnation," says Hui. "When
your muscle spasms, it’s a form of stagnation. The blood is
not moving as smoothly as it should, either because of
internal stress or as a reaction to pain."
He runs a "clinic of last resort" for patients with
various pain problems — fibromyalgia, neck spasms, frozen
shoulder, and what’s called "failed back syndrome." They’ve
had two or three surgeries for back pain and nothing has
"Oftentimes our patients either do not respond to pain
medications or can’t tolerate medications, or can’t tolerate
surgery or don’t want surgery, or they fail surgery," he
says. "We have been a resource center for them."
Doctors have been slow to refer patients to massage
therapy simply because most aren’t acquainted with it in
their training, he tells WebMD.
"Today’s massage therapists are better trained, better
regulated than ever before," Hui says. "In prevention of
disease, health promotion, massage may be an adjunct for
patients who need our medication, who need our surgery. It
may decrease complications, decrease pain and suffering."
The Scientific Evidence
People with migraine pain, lower back pain, arthritis —
they all can benefit from massage. New parents know that
babies who are massaged are calmer and sleep better.
The effects on premature babies are especially dramatic.
The babies gain weight faster — and leave the expensive
hospital neonatal intensive care unit earlier — if they are
massaged, says Tiffany Field, PhD, a psychologist and
director of the Touch Therapy Institute at the University of
Miami School of Medicine.
Field’s own daughter was born prematurely in 1976 and
inadvertently became her first study subject. "We were
trying to help her grow," she tells WebMD. "We found that
Since then, she’s led 83 studies looking at massage’s
effects on depression, pain, autism, autoimmune disorders
such as asthma and diabetes, and immunity.
Her research group is trying to understand the biological
mechanisms that make massage so powerful — looking at basic
physiological measures such as heart rate, blood pressure,
EEG; stress hormones such as cortisol; and chemicals in the
brain that are thought to affect stress and pain.
Among her findings: Premature babies who are massaged
three times a day have 47% more weight, are discharged six
days earlier, and the hospital cost savings is approximately
Depressed mothers who received twice-weekly massages
before they delivered had lower levels of cortisol,
which reduced their risk of premature delivery. It also
reduced their risk of postpartum depression. Something else:
None of their babies was born with higher cortisol (which
affects babies’ development.)
Her work has also included children and adolescents:
- Two chair massages per week made adolescents less
- Asthmatic children who received massages had
increased air movement, lung function, less anxiety, and
- Teachers rated adolescents with attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as being less hyperactive
— and more able to spend time on tasks — following one
month of twice-weekly massages. The adolescents rated
themselves as happier and were observed as fidgeting
During massage, a major nerve in the body called the
vagus nerve is stimulated, which slows heart rate, Field
explains. "The heart needs to be slowed down for a child to
pay attention. We think that’s how it works with ADHD."
- Autistic children were more sensitive to touch, paid
more attention to sounds, and related to teachers better
- When diabetic children received regular massages
from parents, glucose levels decreased to normal range;
they also followed diet requirements better.
In a recently published paper, Field reported that when
patients with fibromyalgia had massages, they had less pain
and slept better. They also had lower levels of "substance
P," a chemical messenger for pain.
She speculates that massage works because it elevates
serotonin — the body’s anti-pain hormone — and reduces
cortisol, the stress hormone.
Ready for a Massage?
Stress is indeed a big problem for everyone these days,
and massage is a legitimate way to eliminate that stress.
People who are "big exercisers" also need to give their
bodies a break, Getz says.
"We all need to give ourselves a focused time to relax,"
Getz tells WebMD. "We’re all operating on flight or fight."
If you’re slightly reluctant about that first massage,
just relax, she says. "A professional therapist will provide
professional treatment, professional draping. All trained
massage therapists are very conscious of people’s fears
about being touched and can help make you comfortable."
To find a good massage therapist: Massage therapy schools
often offer discounted massages performed by students who
are near the end of their training.
The American Massage Therapy Association also offers a
regional "find a massage therapist" database on its web
site. [via WebMD]