6 Surprising Benefits of Massage Therapy

Written by:
Brynnley Hoffman, LMT
Brianna Clark, LMT

Although typically associated with relaxation, there are many surprising benefits to massage therapy that you might not expect. Often times when people hear massage they immediately think of a session geared toward relaxation or indulging in self-pampering. While this association is neither negative nor incorrect, there is a whole wide world of different types of massage techniques that have varying effects and benefits. Massage can greatly improve the quality of life for certain ailments and can aid in the body’s natural processes to promote better overall health. Here are six unexpected benefits of massage:

“Multiple studies have shown that massage therapy can lower cortisol levels, increase dopamine and serotonin (our happy, feel-good hormones), and lower excitatory hormones like norepinephrine and epinephrine. If you have too much norepinephrine or epinephrine it can lead to feelings of anxiety. Too little dopamine and serotonin can cause depression and other psychological problems.”

There is also a natural process that occurs within the body as a reaction to human touch that stimulates oxytocin, another “feel good” hormone. We can see the reaction of oxytocin release in response to touch palpably in the reactions of babies to their mothers touch for the first time and in the way you feel better when you receive a hug or a pat on the back. It’s human nature to seek touch for comfort and science can now explain why that is. Hormone regulation -— an unexpected benefit of massage. 

1- Massage Helps Relieve Depression and Anxiety

Anxiety and depression don’t just exist in your mind, they also exist in your body. When your fight or flight response turns on during times of stress, hormones are released in your body to enable quick movement of muscles, fast reaction times and diverted blood flow.

Massage aids in the symptoms of depression and anxiety by working with your parasympathetic system or “rest and recoup” system by stimulating the release of hormones such as dopamine and serotonin or the “feel good” hormones. These hormones help to balance the effects of stress and your “fight or flight” hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.

2- Massage Boosts Immunity in Partnership With the Circulatory System

A primary function of massage is to stimulate the circulatory system which is comprised of two parts; the cardiovascular or vascular system and the lymphatic system. Blood is pushed through your body by pressure the heart created with each pump. The lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump so lymph fluid movement is reliant on movement and massage therapy to help it along.

Lymph fluid is one of your body’s waste clearing systems. There is an entire network of lymph nodes and pathways that form the lymphatic system. Lymph and blood work together to fill new tissues with new cells and to flush out metabolic waste.

Lymphatic fluid is filled with cells called lymphocytes which are a type of white blood cell. Their function is to fend off foreign invaders and promote healthy immune function through clearing away cellular debris, bacteria, and proteins. The lymph system will take all that is not needed back to the lymph nodes where they can be processed and released back into the body.

Massage effects the lymphatic fluid the same way it stimulates your blood. Through manual pressure and the warming of tissues, massage forces lymphatic fluid to flow through their natural pathways and into the tissues that need it most.

As massage therapists, we warn any clients who are sick and wanting to get massaged that it can often make symptoms worse before they get better. If you have a head cold and receive a lymphatic massage, the foreign invaders attacking your body may be spread as the lymph fluid moves through your body. This can go two ways, your muscles can feel achy and worse than before and can sometimes worsen an infection. However sometimes symptoms worsen directly after a massage but your ultimate recovery time is shortened.

3- Massage Can Improve Sleep

As I stated earlier, massage stimulates your parasympathetic system which is deemed your “rest and digest” response. This causes all the blood and cellular muscle activation messengers that were in your limbs and muscle tissue to find a mission that does not expend so much energy, such as working on digestion (see number 5).

This process aids in removing conscious thought of doing, moving, and going onto more subtle and restful things. The effect is very palpable, such as when you take a minute to quiet your mind and focus on your breath. You notice your muscle tension release, or heart rate to slow and your  inner rhythm to calm. This is the parasympathetic system. Massage, along with relaxation and breathing techniques allow you to take a moment away from all the stressors of life that may be distracting you from getting a good nights rest.

“Blood is pushed through your body by pressure the heart created with each pump. The Lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump so lymph fluid movement is reliant on movement and massage therapy to help it along.”

4- Massage Can Ease Migraines and Headaches

Did you know that many types of headaches can originate from muscle tension? There are many muscles of the face, jaw and neck that all contribute to the onset of headaches. People who suffer from TMJ can experience extreme pain in their jaw and forehead area that often leads to headaches caused by the joint of the jaw and the muscles tightening around it. A  massage therapist can use trigger point therapy or another means of releasing knots in these areas to reduce the tightening of muscles and the overall cause of tension headaches.

For headaches from light sensitivity or over stimulation (such as migraines), massage can provide a place that is shut off from the stimulus of the outside world and its noises and stressors. We can seek to drastically reduce sensory input by a) putting you in a dark room away from the sounds and stimulus of the outside world and B) work with your comfort to provide a place where you can relax and address the tension brought on by a migraine attack. Migraines are especially difficult to deal with as they can take up all your attention, make daily life almost unbearable and can be very painful. Peter Goadsby, M.D., who is a neurologist and headache specialist at the University of California San Francisco, describes the disease as “an inherited tendency to have headaches with sensory disturbance. It’s an instability in the way the brain deals with incoming sensory information, and that instability can become influenced by physiological changes like sleep, exercise and hunger.”1”

When suffering from a migraine, sometimes the only thing you can do is curl up in a ball in bed and wait for it to subside. Talk to your massage therapist about your migraines, the benefits of massage and together make an effective treatment plan. Whether it be scheduling a treatment  when you feel a migraine coming on, or seeing them after the major wave of pain has passed to ease some of the after effects, plan ahead. We can design an approach that works for you to help get you through it.

5- Massage Aids in Digestion and Nutrient Absorption

Relaxation massage especially encourages your body to switch from your sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” system) to your parasympathetic system or (the “rest and digest” system). When the purpose of movement is taken away your body’s energy can be spent or focused on digestion. The effects of stress effectively halt digestion in order to expend as much energy as possible on the effort of running away from or fighting perceived danger.

In today’s world we are faced with the stressors of everyday modern life such as traffic jams and being late for work, but our body’s hormonal response and physical assessment of that stress is still that of the animal in the wild. Cortisol will spike and epinephrine and norepinephrine, our “energizing” or “bracing for impact” hormones will flood our limbs and muscles and fire into our motor neurons. All while our bodies are holding still, sitting in a car in traffic.

When we are able to turn on our parasympathetic system and stimulate our relaxation hormones, our energy is able to work elsewhere like on processing and digesting our food and delivering nutrients to where they are most needed in the body.

There is a process that occurs regularly in massage when our clients begin to relax and embrace their parasympathetic system. The loud grumble and gurgling of their stomach! To us, that means we are doing a good job and your body is allowed the time and space to give you what you most need. Just another reason the benefits of massage are so amazing!

6- Massage Improves Proper Muscle Tone and Flexibility

Massage helps to promote the muscle tone through delivery of oxygen and repair cells. If you are sore from a workout massage can help deliver oxygen, nutrients and lymph to help clean out and repair your muscle tissues so you can jump back into training faster. It also helps maintain muscle tone between workouts by manually stimulating a process that is usually self activated.

The constant contraction of muscles that causes high muscle tone can result in muscle tightness increasing. Muscle tightness can further restrict movement, increase pain and cause poor posture. A massage for high muscle tone helps to reduce tight muscle by encouraging blood flow to increase. An increase in blood flow encourages a rise in muscle temperature. Tissue elasticity and flexibility is increased when the temperature of muscles rises. An increase in tissue elasticity and flexibility increases muscle range of movement, allowing them to stretch to its full length. Increased tissue elasticity and flexibility also promotes the relaxation of muscles, allowing them to loosen. Increased range of movement and relaxed and loosened muscles contribute to a reduction in muscle tightness.”

There is something very powerful that happens within the body when you are relaxed and your muscles are still being “worked”. The process encourages muscle health to last on it’s own and tells the muscles that even when they’re sore they can relax and release.

Massage can be tailored to every person’s individual needs and specifications and our experienced therapists can help guide you in any direction you need to serve your needs best. We covered 6 amazing benefits of massage and hopefully you have come away with some new insight. Make an appointment with us to see how we can help you today!

Happy healing!

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