If you thought massage was nothing more than a pleasant way to spend an hour, think again! Evidence shows that different forms of massage offer a range of health benefits, from the physical to the psychological.
The fact that touch is an innate human need is clear from babies’ response to it: massaged pre-terms gain weight compared to their unmassaged peers. The significance of this need was brought into sharp focus during the Covid pandemic. Self-isolation drove a longing for human touch; something psychologists call ‘skin hunger’.
Let’s take a deeper look.
The science of touch
Touch has powerful social and cultural significance. Religious healers across the centuries have used the ‘laying on of hands’ as a curative method.
But what exactly is going on when someone experiences positive and empathetic touch, like massage?
We sense pleasurable (or ‘affective’) touch through a special network of nerve fibres. The existence of this dedicated pathway highlights how important a role these sensations play in our social functioning.
During massage, there’s a shift in our hormone balance. The stress hormone, cortisol, is dampened, while mood-boosting hormones oxytocin and serotonin surge.
It reduces pain experience. This works physically, as the sensations interrupt pain signals, in much the same way as rubbing a sore knee. But it also works as a reassurance. The recipient can safely experience pleasant sensation, signalling to the nervous system that pain or damage aren’t overwhelming.
More than just a salve for sore muscles, massage offers a wide range of physical gains, including for:
- Immunity – it boosts white blood cell production. These cells form part of the immune system and are active in growth and repair.
- Circulation – it increases local blood flow (which is why the skin reddens). Blood carries nutrients to muscles and removes waste, maintaining good tissue health.
- Flexibility – improving soft tissue elasticity enhances mobility at joints.
- Pain – massage can help ease the pain of headaches, fibromyalgia, arthritis, and soft tissue injuries. It also helps with post-operative pain and scar reduction.
- Recovery – a post-workout massage shortens the time needed for recovery by reducing delayed-onset muscle soreness and fatigue.
- Inflammation – research shows that massage is effective in reducing inflammatory markers.
Good for mind as well as body, massage is a boon to mental wellbeing in several ways, including:
- Stress reduction – it lowers levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. And together with reductions in blood pressure and heart rate, it induces a sense of calmness.
- Relaxation – the simple act of taking time for yourself promotes a sense of wellbeing. Self-care is a component of mental positivity, and a massage combines this with the power of therapeutic touch.
- Mood elevation – research shows the beneficial effects of massage on people struggling with depression or anxiety. Oxytocin, which increases during massage, is sometimes referred to as the ‘love hormone’ and is active during social bonding.
- Sleep – it influences our circadian rhythms, helping to regulate sleep/wake cycles. Serotonin, released during massage, is a precursor to melatonin, the hormone that helps you fall asleep.
Types of massage
With so many varieties of massage on offer, you may be wondering which to select. The answer is that it depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
If you’re an exercise enthusiast with soreness and tightness after a workout, have a sports massage. Reaching the deeper layers, it will address the adhesions that happen with micro-trauma, improving tissue glide and reducing inflammation.
Swedish massage, on the other hand, combines a variety of light strokes, kneading and tapping that can ease aches, improve circulation and encourage lymphatic drainage. This is the go-to massage for those seeking to manage pain and lessen swelling, alongside improving mood and sleep.
If indulgent relaxation is more your thing, you might prefer a spa-style massage. These often include aromatherapy oils, mood lighting and music for the full ‘zen’ experience. Always check that your therapist is qualified and insured before you book.
For expectant mums, pregnancy massage has a host of health benefits. Studies show that massage reduces back and leg pain, and depression and anxiety, while offering increased immunity and a boost of mood-lifting hormones. It also reduces the likelihood of pre-term delivery and increases the baby’s birth weight. Plus, there’s little risk of complications or side-effects, so mums-to-be can feel reassured that they’re in good hands.
And if you deliver by Caesarean section, take a look at our article on the importance of massaging your scar.
Interested in massage?
Whatever massage you decide is right for you, always ask about the qualifications of your therapist. If you have a health or medical condition, check they understand how it might impact your treatment.
If you want to find out how massage can benefit your health and wellbeing, why not try a session with our qualified and experienced massage therapists? Book online today.