Helping Both the Mind and Body: 4 Evidence-Based Benefits of Massage Therapy
Massage therapy is more than intense relaxation for mind and body. It’s also a noninvasive form of healthcare treatment that’s in high demand. If you’re thinking about becoming a massage therapist, these four evidence-based benefits will help you understand just how important massage therapy can be for people’s health and well-being.
We asked massage therapist Jason Erickson, BCTMB, CPT, for his insights on the benefits of massage therapy. Erickson is a graduate of Northwestern Health Sciences University’s Massage Therapy School and owns the Eagan Massage Center with his wife Kelly Thompson (also a graduate of NWHSU).
According to Erickson, massage therapy can:
- Help people feel good.
- Improve people’s mental health.
- Provide pain relief.
- Help people sleep better.
Below, we take a closer look at those benefits and include examples of supporting research.
1. Massage therapy feels great (and that’s a big deal)
“Sometimes helping someone feel good is the most important benefit massage therapists can give people,” says Erickson. “That might sound underwhelming to some, but it’s actually a crucial point. It’s why people don’t just seek out massage therapy when there’s something physically wrong with them.”
Although many entering massage therapy want to focus on issues like pain or orthopedic-related problems, Erickson says the emotional benefits shouldn’t be discounted. “I actually specialize in therapeutic and sports massage. I just believe we shouldn’t forget that massage therapy can help clients feel more relaxed and at peace with their life.”
In fact, lots of people agree with Erickson. In the most recent American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) Consumer Survey, 66 percent of respondents said the primary reason for receiving professional massage was for relaxation/stress reduction.
Stress reduction for breast cancer patients. In an article in Archives of Women’s Mental Health, researchers demonstrated that breast cancer patients who received regular massage therapy reported feeling less stress, had improved moods, and also had lower cortisol levels. (Cortisol is a hormone produced under stress or danger.)
Stress reduction for caregivers. This study in Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention found that back massage reduced cortisol levels, blood pressure, and pulse rate in family caregivers of cancer patients, as well improved anxiety levels and sleep quality.
Stress reduction in coronary care unit (CCU) patients. Looking at blood cortisol levels specifically as an indication of lowered stress, researchers for this study in Nursing and Midwifery Studies concluded that massage reduced cortisol, and they recommend massage for CCU patients.
Stress/anxiety reduction for intensive care unit (ICU) patients. In this study in Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, massage therapy reduced anxiety immediately and 30 minutes post-message on clinical and post-operative ICU patients. Vital sign stress indicators were also reduced immediately after massage.
2. Massage therapy can help improve mental health
Similar to the evidence above, massage therapy has also been proven to help with other mental health conditions. “Some of the strongest evidence we have on the benefits of massage therapy is related to alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression,” Erickson says.
That’s important when considering:
- The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that anxiety disorders affect more than 18 percent of adults every year.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 8 percent of Americans 20 and older suffer from depression.
Help in alleviating symptoms of depression. Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 17 massage therapy studies in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. They concluded: “Massage therapy is significantly associated with alleviated depressive symptoms.”
Help for pregnant women with depression. A study published in Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies looked at women with prenatal depression who either received group psychotherapy and massage therapy, or group psychotherapy only. The group who received both treatments “experienced greater decreases in depression, depressed affect … and anxiety.”
Help with anxiety in hospital patients. In the journal Complementary Therapies in Nursing and Midwifery, a study of elderly patients hospitalized for stroke showed that those receiving massage reported less pain and anxiety. In addition, “all physiological measures (systolic and diastolic blood pressures and heart rate) changed positively, indicating relaxation.”
Help in reducing anxiety for psychiatric inpatients. In an Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry article, researchers stated, “Massage therapy had immediate beneficial effects on anxiety-related measures … in acutely hospitalized psychiatric patients.” They also suggested massage therapy could be a useful tool for stress and anxiety reduction.
Help in reducing anxiety in mothers of preterm babies. Performing massage on their preterm babies positively affected the anxiety of mothers, according to an article in Journal of Clinical Nursing. Based on results, researchers recommend that “mothers apply massage for preterm infants to improve their mental health.”
3. Massage therapy can provide pain relief
The CDC estimates that more than 20 percent of adults suffer from chronic pain, with another 8 percent having pain that disrupts their life in major ways (i.e., high-impact pain). And these numbers don’t include shorter duration acute pain.
“There’s so many different types of pain—from back pain and headaches to post-surgery pain and carpal tunnel syndrome. But the good news is that massage therapy can help,” says Erickson.
And that may be more important than ever before, he says, given the opioid abuse crisis. As a result, more physicians are recommending non-drug interventions for pain—like massage therapy.
For example, Erickson points to the recent clinical guidelines put out by the American College of Physicians (ACP): “Based on the evidence they analyzed, the ACP recommends massage therapy as a frontline treatment instead of drugs for certain types of low back pain. That’s a huge indicator of just how important massage therapy is becoming for pain management.”
Pain management for the general population. In a review of 67 massage therapy studies in Pain Medicine, researchers concluded, “Based on the evidence, massage therapy, compared to no treatment, should be strongly recommended as a pain management option.”
Pain reduction for hospital inpatients. A study in the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork found that inpatients who received massage therapy experienced “significant reduction in pain levels.”
Pain reduction for hospice patients. In an observational pilot study in BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care, hospice patients who received massage self-reported a reduction in pain. They also required fewer doses of medication for sudden severe pain.
Pain reduction for people with fibromyalgia. A study in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that fibromyalgia sufferers who received massage therapy experienced a reduction in sensitivity to pain at tender points.
Pain reduction for low back pain. Based on a systematic review of 13 randomized trials in the journal Spine, researchers suggest massage therapy can help “with subacute and chronic nonspecific low back pain, especially when combined with exercises and education.“
4. Massage therapy can improve sleep quality
A good night’s sleep isn’t just a luxury. The National Institutes of Health says inadequate sleep hurts your daily productivity, compromises your ability to focus, and taxes your immune system’s effectiveness. They also point out that ongoing sleep deprivation has been linked to chronic health problems like stroke, heart disease, and diabetes, as well as depression.
Erickson says, “I have a lot of clients who tell me after a massage that they’re going to go home and sleep great.” And for people who have a history of sleep issues, he says massage therapy “can be a really important part of their self-care routine.”
As to the connection between sleep and massage therapy, Erickson suggests it may in part have to do with calming people’s nervous systems. “A good massage may help shift a person from a sympathetic fight-or-flight state to a parasympathetic rest and digest state.”
Better sleep quality in bypass surgery patients. A study in the journal CLINICS analyzed cardiopulmonary artery bypass graft surgery patients who received massage therapy vs. those who didn’t. Based on the results, researchers concluded, “Massage therapy is an effective technique for improving patient recovery … because it reduces fatigue and improves sleep.”
Better sleep quality for postmenopausal women. Researchers in an article for Sleep Science shared findings from several studies demonstrating that massage therapy can significantly improve the sleep quality for women experiencing postmenopausal-related insomnia.
The bright future for massage therapy in integrative healthcare
Now that you’ve learned some key benefits of massage therapy, here’s one more important point to remember: Massage therapy is becoming a crucial part of integrative healthcare. This is an approach that takes professions like massage therapy and bridges them with the more conventional kind of healthcare people receive at a hospital or primary care clinic.
Integrative healthcare offers massage therapists the opportunity to work in alignment with the medical field, either within an actual integrative practice or on an integrative team while still in private practice.
Ultimately, integrative healthcare is about doing what’s best for the patient. What’s exciting for anyone considering massage therapy as a profession is that your roles will continue to expand as more healthcare practitioners embrace the integrative healthcare approach.