Massage is one of the oldest and most accepted forms of holistic medicine, dating back to at least 2700BC in China and Egypt. There are many different varieties, but they all involve working the body with pressure, so as to relieve pressure (whether physiological or psychological – often both). Hands, feet, elbows, knees and even special devices are used to this end. Sounds lovely. But generally it doesn’t come cheap. So, before you fork out, take a look at some of the benefits to see if it’s worth it for you.
Perhaps the oldest use for massage has been for pain – pain relief, that is. Of all the varieties of pain, the most common application for massage is for lower back pain (LBP). It is estimated that LBP affects approximately 80% of the population at some time in our lives. Our increasingly sedentary lifestyles may be somewhat to blame – for more on this, check out our blogs on the dangers of prolonged sitting (link here) and our toolkit for LBP (link here).
Recent research has shed some light on the effectiveness of massage on LBP. In 2015 Canada Institute for Work and Health conducted an in-depth review of the applications of massage for treating lower back pain. The study of over 3000 participants found that while effective at temporarily reducing pain in the short term, massage was often not enough to heal the back completely – particularly for acute lower back pain. In around 2.5% of cases, classic massage was shown to actually increase overall pain experienced by participants.
A different kind of massage has proven more effective at treating pain in one study. A 2014 University of Washington study on Thai massage showed that it was able to reduce pain between 20%-80% for up to 15 weeks in patients with chronic pain. Thai massage is somewhat different from classical massage in that the emphasis is on pulling, rocking and stretching muscles, rather than rubbing and kneading them. The study also noted improvement in overall mobility, tension, flexibility and anxiety in the follow-up periods.
For expectant mothers worried about the pain of labour, massage may be worth considering. 2012 University of British Colombia research showed that massage is extremely effective at reducing pain during labour, with many patients even delaying or foregoing drug treatment during labour.
Massage (unless you’re really ticklish, perhaps) feels good. Recent research suggests the happy post-massage feeling could stick around for longer than we expect – potentially having long-term effects on our mood. In 2010 I-Shou University, Taiwan, conducted a meta-analysis of 17 studies on the effects of massage on depression. The results were positive. In all of the studies, patients showed reduced depression levels over a wide variety of scales and tools used to measure it.
However, the overall setting and ambience used in massage studios may be more important than previously thought. Research conducted the same year, by the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle, found that while massage is effective at treating anxiety, it is no more effective than simply placing anxious people in a relaxing room, typical of a massage studio.
As massage is relaxing, so it follows that we would find ourselves less likely to be angry after a massage. 2008 research from Upsala University, Sweden, found that, among children, daily massage dramatically reduced anger and aggression.
A new and exciting development in the science of massage is a study that illuminates its potential effects on our immune system. The 2010 meta-study published in the Journal of Contemporary Medicine discovered that Swedish massage causes changes in endocrine response in our immune system, which in turn helps to prevent inflammatory and autoimmune disorders within our body.
Sports massage is a massage therapy designed to help athletes recover faster from injury. 2008 research published in the North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that when used as an auxiliary treatment in a larger rehabilitation program, sports massage is effective at helping us to recover faster from injury.
Overall, massage can be an effective way of dealing with pain, improving mobility and mood, boosting the immune system and speeding up recovery from injuries. The positive aspects certainly outweigh the negative but, unless you’re dating a massage therapist, the costs can be high! Still definitely something that is worth considering for specific ailments or overall wellbeing.