It seems like over the last decade or so, along with yoga, Pilates, CrossFit, and a multitude of other physical practices, massage has moved out of the world of obscurity and into the exploding field of health and wellness. With a quick internet search, one can find claims that massage can do everything from curing headaches to enhancing the immune system to relieving digestive woes, and personal anecdotes can go way further. But if you’re new to massage and bodywork, then you may find yourself getting lost in the seemingly outrageous claims, innumerable styles and modalities, and the new language and wording around the practice.
There are many different styles of massage and bodywork. Some have been created in the last few years, others have been around for hundreds of years. Nearly every culture around the world has an indigenous practice of physically manipulating the body to heal or maintain health. Some practices are highly targeted (think acupuncture) while others are more general. Some only look at muscular tissue, some look at energetic lines (a sort of energy road map), and some target specific internal organs. Most people who have received massage here in America are familiar with Swedish massage, which tends to be gentle, non-specific, and uses lotion or oil. Different styles of massage will offer different benefits and will physically feel very different, and each therapist will have their own approach and techniques. If you have a negative massage experience, keep exploring and I promise you will find something that suits your needs.
So what are the benefits of massage? It’s a long list, but here are a few that can be applied to most styles of bodywork: decreased stress, decreased pain, improved sleep, relief for depression and anxiety, improved immune function, improved digestive function, improved circulation, faster recovery after exercise, increased flexibility, and improved posture and range of motion. There is a growing body of scientific research validating these effects, but massage as a field is also limited by scientific constraints because it is nearly impossible to conduct a double-blind study, i.e. most people can tell if they are receiving a massage or not.
However, there is still plenty that science can validate. For example, multiple studies have shown massage decreases blood cortisol levels (the stress hormone) by up to 50%. Massage also can significantly increase the levels of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin in the body, all of which are chemical messengers that are critical for maintaining mental and emotional health. When it comes to physical performance, massage can make a huge difference in functional range of motion. When we exercise we are contracting muscles, and if we don’t make an effort to get those muscles back to a state of length and laxity then sometimes they will just stay contracted. Massage techniques that include stretching and movement are great for reminding those contracted muscles that it’s ok to relax again, freeing up cooperative muscle groups that may have been compensating for the stubborn ones in lock-down. And if nothing else, massage gives us the chance to just stop and be quiet for an hour, a rare opportunity in this day and age.
-Reid Swenson, Massage Therapist