Everybody knows that getting a massage feels good. But is a massage actually good for your health? Science has not managed to keep up with the multitude of goods and services claiming to be healthful. What hard scientific data is available on the health benefits of massage therapy?During a massage, soft tissues (including muscles, skin and tendons) are manipulated, using fingertips, hands and fists. It can be given by a variety of health care professionals, including a physical therapist, occupational therapist or massage therapist. Different types of massage are performed in a variety of settings for a range of purposes, including achieving relaxation, relieving soft tissue injury, lessening muscle tension, and a host of other reasons. Major medical institutions including the Mayo Clinic and the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute have invested significant resources in order to understand the benefits of massage. In a key study performed by Sloan-Kettering, massage therapy was given to a group of cancer patients. Patients rated their levels of pain, fatigue, stress/anxiety, nausea, and depression, both pre- and post-massage. The three-year study included 1,290 patients and various types of massage therapy. Symptoms were reduced by approximately 50%, including for those patients who were suffering the most. Outpatients improved 10% more than inpatients. The benefits appeared to continue for at least a two-day period. Sloan-Kettering concluded that massage therapy is indeed associated with substantial improvement in the symptoms of cancer patients. More research is clearly called for, but various studies have shown improvement in: •Pain: Pain decreased in patients with fibromyalgia, migraines, recent surgery, back pain, and cancer pain. •Cancer treatment: People with cancer who received regular massage therapy during treatment reported less anxiety, pain and fatigue (note the Sloan-Kettering study, above). •Sports-related soreness: Some athletes receive massage after exercise, especially to the muscles used most in their sport. Massage may improve circulation to those muscles. •Children with diabetes: Children who were massaged every day by their parents were more likely to stick to their medication and diet regimens, thereby helping to regulate their blood glucose levels. •Anxiety: Massage has been shown to reduce anxiety in depressed children, anorexic women, and in adults trying to quit smoking. •Alcohol withdrawal: When combined with traditional medical treatment, massage has shown benefits, perhaps by increasing feelings of support, safety and engagement in therapy. •Labor: Massage during labor appears to lessen stress and anxiety, relax muscles and reduce pain. •Immune system: HIV patients who participated in massage studies showed an increased number of natural "killer cells", which are thought to defend the body from viral and cancer cells. •Infant growth: Massage encouraged weight gain in premature babies and reduced their hospital length of stay. •Self-esteem: Massage involves direct physical contact with another person, and can make one feel cared for. That special attention can improve self-image in people with physical disabilities and terminal illnesses. So why exactly might massage be beneficial? The data supporting the findings above tell us that massage or some component of it is beneficial to many aspects of our health. What we still do not know is exactly how or what massage does to the body to bring about these benefits. It is possible that the majority of the medicinal effect is simply due to human touch. Studies are now underway to examine what happens when humans touch one another. Do chemicals in the body and brain, which modulate the immune system, the stress response, or mood, actually change? The scientific community expects to be seeing more concrete medical data soon. Are there risks to massage therapy? It is not for everyone. We all know people who simply do not like to be touched. If performed by a trained therapist, risks are minimal, but there are some people for whom massage could actually be dangerous, including those with: •A recent heart attack •Deep vein thromboses (blood clots) •Unhealed fractures •Rheumatoid arthritis in the area being massaged •Cancer in the area being massaged •Severe osteoporosis in which the bones are so brittle that massage could cause a fracture. Contact your physician if you question whether massage is safe for you. I wish you good health, and peace of mind and body! Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and current chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: May 8, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 3