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Massage Therapy


Kristen Heggie


How massage therapy works.

            A massage therapist is a person who has extensively studied anatomy, physiology, massage therapy techniques, first aid and CPR.  The massage therapist is the person who carries out the treatment of massage therapy mostly by using his/her hands, but in some cases, they use the forearms, elbows or feet.  Massage therapy “involves the manipulation of the soft tissue structures of the body to prevent and alleviate pain, discomfort, muscle spasms, and stress; and to promote health and wellness” (  It has been shown that the direct manual pressure and movement from the hands on the person’s body is the main reason that massage therapy is effective. This pressure and movement helps to increase the blood’s circulation and flow of lymph fluids, increase the amount of oxygen and nutrients to cells and tissues, relax muscles, improve range of motion, lower a person’s heart rate and blood pressure, and increase endorphins which are the body’s natural pain killers.  


Why massage therapy?

Massage therapy not only addresses the physical needs of a person, but also their mental and emotional needs and wants in order to help the person feel relief from physical injuries, get rid of daily stress or help them maintain good health in general.  There are many advantages to massage therapy.  The physical advantages of massage therapy, such as relieving arthritis, circulatory problems, pulled or strained muscles, tension headaches, increasing the immune system, insomnia and many other physical problems can help a person’s physical body feel better.  There are also many mental benefits as well, including satisfying the need for a nurturing touch, relieving anxiety and increasing awareness of the mind-body connection (  This unique element of touch involved in massage therapy is especially important for patients choosing this treatment for mental purposes because it gives the patient a sense of love and care.

One thing massage therapy does not do is to increase the strength of the muscles being massaged.  Instead, massage therapy can help to loosen any tight muscles or stimulate any weak muscles.  Because massage therapy increase blood flow and the oxygen capacity of the blood, it is easier for a person to recover from an injury.  Nerves in the body are also directly affected by massages.  By stimulating these nerves, the blood that flows through these organs gets to the organs at a quicker rate because the blood vessels become dilated.  The nerves effected by the massage can be either stimulated or calmed, depending on the necessity of each individual.  Unlike many other medical treatments, massage therapy is unique in that it does not discriminate.  It can have these same positive effects on babies, the elderly, athletes, business workers and college students.


How effective is massage therapy?

            Massage therapy is a treatment that is on the rise because of its success in the studies that have been conducted and are happening now.  Many research facilities such as the University of Miami School of Medicine’s Touch Research Institute, Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and the National Institutes of Health are taking on the challenge of studying the effectiveness of massage therapy.  The results have been very positive, and through these studies, some findings have been that massage therapy increases the body’s “killer cells”, therefore making the immune system more efficient, and it makes people more alert and aware of their surroundings, enabling them to carry out their daily tasks more efficiently and experiencing less stress, tension and anxiety.  For athletes, massage therapy before exercise has shown that muscles become more pliable enabling athlete to reach their maximum potential during their performances. After a hard workout, massage therapy has also shown to reduce muscle spasms and the “metabolic buildup” such as lactic acid, enabling the athlete to recover from the workout more quickly and reduce the risk of injury. (



Think massage therapy is right for you?

            Although massage therapy is becoming one of the fastest growing treatments, there are a few conditions in which massage therapy could actually be more harmful instead of helpful. Such conditions include circulatory illnesses, infectious diseases, some forms of cancer, cardiac problems, certain skin conditions or any tissues that are inflamed or infected. (




Is massage therapy really beneficial?

Throughout the research through medical journal, there was an ample amount of information which contradicted many of the claims made by some of the web sites.  Most of the claims disputed were the claims which stated that massage therapy has many great physical benefits.  Instead, most of the studies have shown that massage therapy has the greatest benefits psychologically.  In one experiment, researchers were trying to measure the “effects of massage on physiological restoration, perceived recovery, and repeated sports performance” (Dyson, Hemmings, Graydon & Smith, 2000).  In this instance, they had eight amateur boxers complete two simulated boxing matches.  The boxers’ heart rates, blood lactate and glucose levels were taken before the first round.  The boxers completed the first round and they were then split into two groups.  One group received a massage in between the two rounds, which consisted of a professionally trained sports massage therapist giving the massage, and the other group participated in a passive rest intervention, which entailed simply laying on rest mats.  Both treatments lasted for twenty minutes.  Before starting the second round, but after the treatment, heart rates, blood lactate and glucose levels were taken again.  Along with these tests, the boxers were asked to evaluate their perceived recovery ratings.  When the second round was complete, all tests were taken again.  Interestingly, the massage group did not perform any better in the second round than did the passive rest intervention group.  In the end, there was no difference in the blood lactate or glucose levels in the groups, which shows evidence to discount the earlier statements that massage therapy can help peoples’ muscles recover at a faster rate.  Although in the second round, physically, the massage group did not perform at any higher standards than the passive rest group, the massage group did report a significantly higher increased perception of recovery than the passive rest group. 

This study has shown that many of the real benefits of massage therapy are psychological.   Since the boxers who received the massages, thought that they recovered faster, they felt better about themselves and their performance.  Even though physically this is not true, mentally, it is a big step.  If people believe that massages are helping them to recover, they will be more likely to keep trying even if they are having trouble and work harder than if they did not think their treatment was working.

Once again, another experiment shows evidence that massage therapy does not really have a physiological benefit to patients, but has a significant psychological benefit instead (Birk, Khuder, MacArthur, & McGrady, 2000).  In this experiment, the researchers are trying to find the “effects of massage therapy alone and in combination with other complementary therapies on immune systems and quality of life in patients with HIV”.  This experiment disputes the idea that massage therapy stimulates the “killer cells” in a person’s body, helping them to fight infections.   In this randomized prospective controlled trial, forty two people with HIV were randomly assigned to one of three groups.  Over a twelve week period the massage only group received a forty five minute overall body massage once a week, the massage with exercise group received a similar massage and supervised aerobic exercise two days a week, and the massage with stress management group also received a similar massage along with biofeedback stress management and the control group received their regular treatment.  The patients’ CD4+ lymphocytes, CD8+ lymphocytes and natural killer cells were measured periodically throughout the experiment.  The results showed that the massage therapy did not increase the levels of any of the CD4+ lymphocytes, CD8+ lymphocytes or natural killer cells, but instead, the group that received both the massage therapy and the stress management showed a combined effort in helping to increase the patients’ quality of life, showing the psychological benefits of massage therapy were greater than the physical effect.  The fact that massage in combination with stress management was most effective shows that a combination of treatment may help a patient even more.

In another experiment which tested “whether three consecutive days of slow stroke back massage is effective on patients in a rehabilitation setting”, the psychological effects were extraordinarily greater than the physical effects even though there were some physical advantages (Pokorny, 2001).  There were twenty four adult patients who were part of the experiment.  After receiving the treatment, there was a significant decrease in systolic and diastolic blood pressure on all three of the days, but only on the first and third day, was there a significant decrease in heart rate and respiratory rate.  The most amazing effect observed in this experiment was the perception scores of all of the patients.  Patients were noted as feeling “comfortable, good, pleasant, and warm” and for each time the had their massage, they said that “their intervention made them feel care for, happy, physically relaxed, less anxious, calm, restful and gave them a feeling of closeness with the nurse”, showing the true importance of the therapy by helping the patients feel mentally stronger.


The real benefits of massage therapy.

            Although many internet sources have indicated that massage therapy has a significant positive effect physically on the human body, much of the research done and printed in medical journals shows otherwise.  Some review papers listed in the Cochrane Database System, also supports the claim that massage therapy has greater mental benefits rather than physical benefits.  The strongest effect of massage therapy is the psychological effect on the patient.  Even if one of the main goals is to help a patient physically, a psychological benefit for a patient is better than treatment without any kind of benefit.  Even if the massage is not helping the patient physically, the mental effects last a lot longer and may in turn cause the patient to believe that their therapy is truly impacting their physical body, in turn helping them to become healthier in the long run.


Who is presenting this information about massage therapy and why?

            The American Massage Therapy Association presents much of this information in order to help spread the awareness about the benefits of massage therapy in a “caring professional and ethical manner in order to promote the health and welfare of humanity” (  WebMD also contributed some of this information because “health is a very personal, private subject, and [WebMD] wants you to feel as comfortable as possible” when learning about health care. (  Many medical journals also presented this information including the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Rehabilitative Nursing and The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in order to help people to further understand the true effects of massage therapy, so when choosing their own therapy, would be able to make a more informed decision.




Birk, Thomas J., Sadik Khuder, Rodger D. MacArthur, Angele McGrady“The Effects of Massage Therapy Along and in Combination with Other Complementary Therapies on Immune system Measures and Quality of Life in Human Immunodeficiency Virus”.  The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Vol. 6, (5); 405-14; 2000.


Dyson, Rosemary, Brian Hemmings, Jan Graydon, Marcus Smith.  “Effects of massage on physiological restoration, perceived recovery, and repeated sports performance”.  British Journal of Sports Medicine Online, 34:109-114, 2000.


Pokorny, Holland B. “Slow stroke back massage: its effect on patients in a rehabilitation setting”. Rehabilitative Nursing; 26(5):182-6, Sept.-Oct. 2001.



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