Massage alters EEG activity, increases parasympathetic activity and decreases cortisol levels
Massage is widely used in all cultures to evoke feelings of deep relaxation and reduced anxiety. The anxiety reducing and mood enhancing benefits of massage are probably related to changes in EEG activity, decreased levels of cortisol and increased activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which acts automatically to calm the body and brain during stress. Numerous studies show that moderate pressure massage is more effective than light pressure massage for reducing pain associated with different medical problems including fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. Moderate pressure massage also improves attention and enhances the body’s immune response by increasing the activity of natural killer cells. Functional brain imaging studies show that changes take place in many areas of the brain involved in regulating emotions and stress response including the amygdala and the hypothalamus. For an excellent review on the research evidence for massage therapy see “Massage Therapy Research Review” by Field (Field 2014).
Challenges to designing studies on massage
It is difficult to examine the beneficial effects of massage therapy using contemporary research methods because it is impossible to design a double-blind study in which the person receiving massage therapy is ‘blinded’ to treatment. Also, the physical and psychological benefits of massage are difficult to quantify in controlled trials. Findings of many studies are limited by the absence of a sham control group i.e., a group treated by someone who poses as a massage therapist but has no training. The situation is further complicated by the fact that few massage therapists are trained in research methods or work in institutional settings where sham-controlled trials can be conducted.
Massage is widely used for anxiety and has a strong record of success
In spite of the paucity of published research evidence, regular massage is a widely used technique in many cultures to treat chronic stress and anxiety and deserves serious consideration. Consistent anecdotal evidence, a long history of widespread use of massage for stress reduction, and positive findings of open trials support the view that regular massage therapy reduces the severity of chronic moderate anxiety in general, and specifically when anxiety is related to test-taking or problem-solving, work stress or the anticipation of invasive medical procedures.
In my own clinical experience working with patients who complain of chronic stress, test-taking stress and generalized anxiety, regular massage therapy effectively reduces anxiety, improves emotional resilience and enhances feelings of general well-being in anxious patients.
Few safety issues
Massage is safe when done by a trained therapist, seldom resulting in injuries. However, individuals who have chronic pain disorders or other medical conditions that involve the musculoskeletal system should consult with their physician before receiving regular massage therapy.