8 Benefits of Massage for Healing and Relaxation
Massage is one of the oldest and most common forms of manual therapy that still exists today and is used for a range of purposes. (1). Anything from stress management to exercise recovery to pain management and rehabilitation or even simple enjoyment has often been cited as common reasons for partaking in massage. (2). This has seen a number of disciplines and sub-disciplines emerge in what has become a huge industry in the health and beauty field. It has also caused a lot of research to be done over the last half of a century to try to ascertain exactly what benefit, if any, massage has on an individual and find any circumstances where massage should, or could, be applied.
This has led to a huge amount of research outlining potential benefits and uses for massage both in its own and compared to other methods used to achieve any of the above goals. All of which are detailed below.
Massage 101: The Benefits and Uses
As shown above, massage has been used for a long time and for a wide range of goals. One of the main reasons cited for the many benefits given by massage is the enjoyment and relaxation that most massage techniques promote.
However, due to the diverse nature of massage use and the reasons for its implementation the context of why it is being utilized and what alternatives are available, as well as how massage compares to these alternatives, must be considered.
1. Massage Can Alleviate or Reduce Symptoms of Stress
Massage as a form of stress management is perhaps one of the most common reasons for massage today. It has also been well researched, with studies showing that massage does indeed have a significant effect on reducing stress. (3)
There is also further evidence that massage in stress management may also have a more physical effect, decreasing cortisol, which is widely known as the ‘stress hormone’, and improving immune system function. (4) It has also shown to be effective in reducing blood pressure and heart rate in highly stressed individuals, which can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. (5)
2. Massage May Increase Productivity in the Workplace
Massage has been shown to be particularly beneficial in people with highly stressful work lives, with just a 15-minute massage showing a reduction in overall anxiety and increasing mood. (6) This gives a further potential use for massage as a time-efficient activity that can help prevent burnout and possibly increase productivity in the workplace.
This increase in performance and productivity is further strengthened by studies showing that thinking and mathematical skills were improved following message, again an effect most likely stemming from a decreased stress level. (9)
It is also shown to be beneficial for reducing stress and improving mood in pregnant women, whose stress levels could have substantial negative effects on an unborn child and lead to complications during delivery. (10)
3. Massage May Be More Effective Than Conventional Stress Management Techniques
Massage has been shown to be at least as effective as other forms of stress management and, when combined with exercise, has even shown to be even more beneficial than some conventional stress management techniques such as listening to stress management tapes, general relaxation therapy or guided relaxation. (10,11,12,13)
So, massage may offer a quick, cheap and easy way to reduce stress, decrease the risk of picking up common illnesses, reduce the risk of suffering from cardiovascular problems, and improving productivity and performance at work. It may be even more effective if it is combined with exercise.
4. Massage for Sports or Exercise Performance
Improving athletic performance has also been a common use of massage by increasing blood flow to working muscles prior to exercise, increase muscular control or to help increase flexibility. (14)
Studies have backed the idea that massage can be beneficial in increasing blood flow to the massaged muscles and increase flexibility (15), which could, therefore, help prevent injury during competition or exercise.
There is also evidence that massage can help improve muscular strength and power when exercising shortly after the massage is performed. (16) It is also useful in improving mood in athletes which could translate to improved performance and recovery. (17)
The above studies back the idea that massage before or during exercise or competition could be an easy and fast way of improving performance, particularly in strength and power-based sports, which could explain the surge in popularity of self-massage techniques and devices such as foam rollers.
However, as useful as massage has been shown to be in improving sporting performance, it seems to be most useful as a method of recovery after strenuous exercise or repeated competition, which is discussed further below.
5. Massage May Accelerate Recovery Time
Massage as a means of recovery from exercise and competition has been studied extensively over the last decade with more emphasis on improving recovery and subsequent performance. (14)
As stated above, while massage can be effective in improving performance, recovery from strenuous exercise is where this method really begins to shine.
Massage has even proven to as effective as some traditional forms of recovery for athletes, like active recovery, light cycling or jogging. On the other hand, it has been found to be superior to passive recovery, like resting on the couch. However, like in sports performance, a combination of methods, such as both active recovery and massage, seemed to have a better overall effect on recovery than massage alone. (17)
So, while massage can be effective for some improvements in immediate exercise performance, it is an especially effective method of speeding up recovery from strenuous exercise, particularly when combined with light activity.
6. Massage May Be An Effective Method for Pain Management
Like massage for stress management, using massage or manual therapy to help manage pain is also a common, cheap and effective method to use for recovering populations, like hospital patients or general individuals.
Among other uses, massage has been used effectively for post-operative recovery (18) and in general, patients recovering from a wide range of illnesses and injuries (19), some of which included diseases like cancer-associated issues (20) to reduce pain and anxiety and promote relaxation and recovery. This has then been shown to further help in improving external yet related issues such as sleep quality and overall recovery. It can also be useful in reducing pain and promoting comfort in pregnant women in labor. (21)
7. Massage May Help Treat Chronic Aches and Pains
Aside from an in-hospital setting, massage is also effective in helping to treat common forms of long-term or ‘chronic’ pain, like low back pain.
Massage has been shown to be one of the most effective forms of treating low-back pain in both the short and long-term, with some research showing effects to last up to a year after massage treatment (22). Massage was even shown to be more effective than other therapies like joint mobilization, physical therapy or acupuncture, while showing to be equally effective as exercise.
Other forms of chronic pain that massage has shown to be effective in managing include chronic muscle pain (23), chronic neck pain (24), and even headaches, chronic shoulder pain (25) or fibromyalgia. (26)
So, for both patients in a hospital, and general populations suffering from recurring pain, massage may offer an effective and relatively low-cost option to help reduce pain and help improve recovery. For some forms of pain, like chronic low-back pain, supplementing massage with specific exercises may help improve results.
8. Massage Be An Effective Component of Post-Injury Rehabilitation
Aside from pain, recovery from injuries can be another use for massage. There has been evidence that massage can help reduce inflammation following muscle damage from exercise (27). This may be equally beneficial in reducing inflammation after muscle sprain or tears.
There is also direct research showing beneficial effects of massage on injuries like running induced knee pain (27), as well as massage showing to be effective in helping in the recovery of post-operative patients. However, there is currently a lack of data examining the effect of massage, or comparing this effect against alternative or traditional methods of injury treatment or rehabilitation in sports or impact based injuries.
So, while massage may help with some forms of injury, reduce inflammation from muscle damage, and/or improve recovery, there is currently very little research looking at this as a primary method to help rehabilitate injured athletes or normal individuals.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Massage can have many uses and benefits for both healthcare providers and everyday individuals. It is a useful method in improving stress levels and improving mood, improving sport or exercise performance as well as recovering from exercise and competition. It is also useful in managing pain from a wide range of illnesses and injuries.
Massage is usually most effective when combined with other methods for each goal, however it can usually be effective as a standalone practice as well. It can also be used for enjoyment and leisure.
Considering massage is highly available, usually low-cost, enjoyable and effective, there are a lot of reasons to begin incorporating massage, either through self-massage techniques like foam rolling, or traditional massage techniques through hiring or regularly visiting a masseuse to help improve quality of life and performance.