By definition, “massage therapy” is the scientific manipulation of soft body tissues, such as muscle, connective tissue, tendons, and ligaments, with the aim of improving a person’s health and wellbeing. It could include many techniques, depending on a person’s need and health status.
While many massages are done to help a person relax, some are geared toward rehabilitating an individual. Whatever the reason for the massage, if performed correctly by a trained professional, it could offer several health benefits.
Massage therapists often employ kneading, stroking, circular movements, vibrations, etc., and these techniques form the basis of different styles of massage. According to the American Massage Therapy Association, there are four main types of massage:
- Swedish: performed to relax and energize an individual
- Deep tissue: to relax muscle damage caused by injury
- Sports: to aid in preventing or treating injuries, keep the body flexible
- Chair: upper body massage of an individual seated in a special chair
Additionally, there are massages that concentrate on a particular muscle group to relieve tension or tightness (trigger-point massage).
Depending on the pressure that is needed for a massage, a therapist may use his/her fingers, hands, forearms, elbows, feet, etc. to bring about the desired results.
Here are some of the well-known/researched health benefits offered by massages:
- Relieving stress and anxiety: Some clinical trials supported by the US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), as well as other trials, show that massage could help relieve anxiety, depression, etc. in pregnant women and the elderly
- Relieving pain: NICCH funded studies have concluded that massage may be helpful in relieving chronic back pain, neck pain, pain owing to osteoarthritis of the knee, etc. There is also evidence of massage relieving pain due to fibromyalgia, Myofascial pain syndrome, nerve damage, and temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ)
- Relieving headaches: Anecdotal evidence, as well as some preliminary results from clinical trials, suggest that massaging might be helpful in providing relief from headache
- Reducing Cancer-related pain: According to the NCCIH website, numerous studies have shown that massage therapy could, in the short term, help reduce pain in cancer, as well as improve mood and make the patients feel relaxed. However, therapists are advised to be extra cautious while massaging cancer patients
- Improve quality of life in HIV/AIDS infected individuals: Data from several clinical trials seem to suggest that massages could improve quality of life in HIV-infected patients and those suffering from AIDS, particularly with other stress-management techniques. There is also evidence to suggest that massage might have a positive effect on immune function in these patients
- Improving health of pre-term babies: Although not proved effective for healthy babies, studies show that pre-term babies could gain weight after massage/s with moderate pressure
- Recovering from surgeries: Massage therapy is known to help relieve anxiety and help individuals recover from cardiac surgeries, reconstructive and cosmetic surgeries, decompression and fusion surgery of the lumbar spine, etc.
- Improving sleep: Massage therapy has been shown to improve sleep in people suffering from stress and insomnia.
Thus, there appear to be many benefits to massage. While most massages are relaxing and beneficial, there may be instances when a massage would not be advisable, such as in individuals suffering from fractures, bleeding disorders, etc. It is best to consult with a physician under such circumstances.
A word of caution: Please consult with your health care provider before initiating alternative therapies. Tell your healthcare provider about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help your healthcare provider assess your clinical situation better. This will also help them take appropriate clinical measures to assist you. Full disclosure to your healthcare provider will help ensure coordinated and safe care.
Written by Mangala Sarkar Ph.D.