Surprising Benefits Of Massage

by Carol Milano


If you think massage is just a nice way to unwind after work or a workout, you're missing out on its many advantages.

A growing body of reputable, respected research is beginning to document its surprising benefits. The Touch Research Institute, University of Miami School of Medicine, has shown that massage therapy:

  • increased immune function in women diagnosed with breast cancer in the past five years
  • relieved severe premenstrual symptoms
  • lessened labor pain and length, shortened hospital stays, lowered likelihood of postpartum depression
  • heightened alertness; raised speed and accurary at math calculations
  • lowered migraine headache pain, distress, and sleep disturbance
  • decreased depression, anxiety, stress, pain and insomnia in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • reduced leg and back pain of pregnancy; improved mood and sleep
  • lessened itching, pain or anxiety for burn care patients
  • lowered job stress scores
  • led pregnant women to fewer labor or postnatal complications

The University of Arkansas College of Nursing in Little Rock found back massage helped critically ill patients sleep at least an hour longer than the control group. At Denver's University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, over 2/3 of patients attributed their increased mobility, greater energy and faster recovery to the massages they'd received during their stays. In a two-month study of low back pain at University of Guelph, Ontario, 63% of subjects reported no pain after six massage therapy treatments.

Medical Benefits

In a recent survey, 54% of primary care or family practice physicians said they would encourage patients to add massage therapy to medical treatment. Here's what doctors have discovered:

"Following surgery to ligaments, bones or joints, the surrounding muscles can benefit from massage," reports Alan M. Strizak, MD, Associate Clinical Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at University of California, Irvine. With hamstring strain, such as torn muscle in the back of the thigh, gentle massage encourages blood supply. For whiplash to the neck, or soreness in the upper back and neck from long computer stints, massage works on small trigger points in those muscles to promote healing.

Matthew Heller, MD, a rheumatologist in Peabody, MA, sends all his fibromyalgia patients for massage. "Patients tell me they feel better right away. It lasts for about a week. Massage therapists show them where the tight muscles are, so patients can learn guided stress relaxation," says the co-author of "Clinical Research Opportunities" (Practice Management Information Corporation, 1997).

At Texas Back Institute in Plano, massage therapy is used to help reduce the swelling of edema (fluid accumulation in tissues) or lymphedema (fluid accumulation in arms or legs after removal of lymph nodes). "We make sure the patient has no blood clots, cellulitis, or infection," says Nayan Patel, MD, a physical medicine/ rehabilitation specialist there. Like Dr. Heller, he uses massage as part of a physical therapy program.

People often rely on massage therapy when they can't tolerate or would rather avoid the side effects of medication. Pregnant women, chemotherapy patients, and ballet dancers are in this category, notes Dr. Strizak. When acute or chronic low back pain causes tightness and reduces mobility in the lumbar muscles or hip, Dr. Patel's learned that massage therapy can definitely loosen the soft tissue in those areas.

Given its versatility, it's not surprising that massage therapy is becoming more popular. Consumers visit massage therapists 114 million times a year, spending between $4 and $6 billion. More and more corporations invite massage therapists on-site as both an employee benefit and a way to reduce stress and absence. The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), the leading professional group,
has over 44,000 members.

Who're You Gonna Call?

Before you choose a massage therapist, it's important to understand what the specialty includes. A physical therapist employs various devices and exercises in the rehabilitation of damage caused by illness or injury. Massage therapists use manual techniques to normalize soft tissues affected by stress, injury, and illness. They aim to improve circulation, induce muscular relaxation, lessen pain and stress, and promote health.

Massage therapists have extensive training. 29 states and Washington DC regulate the profession, usually requiring 500 or more hours of classroom instruction, as does the AMTA. The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork offers a comprehensive written exam and certification, assuring that a massage therapist has completed the required hours of education and is qualified to enter the field.

Clients usually come to Susan Kaner, a Licensed Massage Therapist in Brooklyn NY, for two main reasons: they're either in pain, or stressed, overworked and sleepless. She frequently treats headaches, repetitve stress injuries, and arthritic aches. "Massage therapy relieves swollen muscles surrounding arthritic joints, and promotes flexibility. You can see the swelling reduced after a massage session. People generally feel considerably less pain and more ease of movement."

Kaner treats pre-surgery patients, to help them relax the day before an operation. "You can't massage the surgical site eright after surgery. But collateral areas can be massaged, to stimulate healing and relaxation," she explains.

The benefits are cumulative. "Once they start to have more mobility and flexibility and a reduction in joint inflammation, patients tend to maintain the advantages of a massage for a longer time, feeling less pain," reports Kaner.

Americans will generally encounter two types of massage. Dr. Patel usually recommends deep friction massage, known as Structural Integration, which may initially be more painful than other techniques. "The optimal therapeutic level for deep tissue massage is just below the client's pain threshold," notes Kaner. "If you massage too deeply, you cause the patient more pain, and they are unable to relax."

Swedish massage, the more familiar (and gentler) variety, "promotes relaxation, increases circulation and joint mobility, relieves swelling, and hastens muscle recovery after exercise. By hastening the elimination of metabolic wastes, you're less sore after a work-out, the muscles are better-conditioned, and you're more able to resume exercise without injury," says Kaner.

In fact, athletes in Europe consider massage therapy a part of their everyday training routine, Dr. Strizak observes. "It cleanses muscles and relaxes them so they can sleep."

When it comes to massage therapy, "We see lots of different medical indications," he points out. Dr. Heller, another supporter, declares, "I absolutely think massage therapy works."


Find a qualified massage therapist in the consumer area at the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork website ( or through the American Massage Therapy Association's free Find A Massage Therapist National Locator Service ( or call 888-843-2682.)

NOTE: Fees vary with type and length of massage, and from one city or region to another. The national average is $45 to $65 per hour, AMTA reports. An increasing number of health insurance companies are including massage therapy as a covered benefit.

Many of these articles appear on the publication's website, which are often password-protected or members-only. For your convenience, I've gathered them on my own website.