What Is Massage Therapy?

bigstock-picture-of-couple-in-spa-salon-45875572What is Massage Therapy? Massage has been utilized for millennia. It has been referenced in ancient writings from ancient China, Japan, India, Arabia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. In Treatise on Massage, Theoretical and Practical by Douglas Graham, Hippocrates was quoted as saying: “The physician must be experienced in many things, but assuredly also rubbing; for things that have the same name have not always had the same effects.”1 By this, he was making reference to the fact that different techniques provide different results: soft massage vs. hard massage; one loosens and relaxes the other stimulates and builds strength. The Renaissance period saw a great increase of massage in Europe. It was introduced to the United States by two physicians who practiced it after having been trained in Sweden. Due to scientific and technological advances, it fell out of popularity with the US medical community in the 1930s and 40s; and saw resurgence in the 1970s for sports medicine. Since the 1970s, massage therapy has seen growth and interest once again. In 2006, 18 million US adults and 700,000 children received massage therapy 2.

There are many techniques in massage; each is utilized for specific conditions. Some of the most popular ones are:

Swedish massage (the most common technique) is performed in the direction of the heart, sometimes moving the joints. Specifically it is applied for relaxation, decrease muscle tension, and circulatory improvement and increase of range of motion.3 Related to Swedish massage, is Sports massage which assists athletes with specific care relating to their sport.

Deep Tissue Massage uses strong pressure; slow, deep strokes; and friction across the muscle to relieve chronic muscle tension.4

Trigger Point Massage is the manipulation of an area of irritability within soft tissue, characterized by tenderness or referred pain (also felt as tingling, numbness, burning or itching) in another area of the body.5



There are several theories on why massage works aside from obvious benefits of improving blood flow which increases the ability of oxygen and nutrients to move through the body. The first is the “gate control theory” which suggests that massage interferes with the pain signal pathway to the brain. Pain impulses run along nerve paths through the spinal cord to the brain and the brain perceives the signals as pain. Rubbing sends many other signals to the brain. When all these signals travel on the nerves, the nerves get jammed and many signals do not reach their destination, thus the “gate” is closed and the person does not feel pain.6 The second theory is that massage releases certain chemicals (like serotonin or endorphins). According to an article from Touch Research Institutes, University of Miami School of Medicine, a compilation of study results have shown that serotonin and dopamine increase 31% and 28% respectively, while cortisol (chemical which indicates stress) is decreased by 31% after massage therapy.7

The benefits of massage therapy are many and correspond to various physical conditions. For example, 13 clinical trials in 2008 indicate that it might be useful for chronic lower back pain. A study of over 300 hospice patients with advanced cancer indicated that massage improves mood and decreases pain. Arthritis sufferers notice a decrease in stiffness and pain. Asthmatic children show better breathing function and increase in air flow. High blood pressure patients demonstrate lowered diastolic numbers and a decrease in anxiety and stress hormones.

More importantly side effects are minimal. There could be some bruising, temporary pain, swelling and the possibility of sensitivities or allergies to massage oil or essential oils which are sometimes used to increase relaxation. It is important for a patient to discuss any potential important medical conditions with the massage therapist so that the treatment can consider these factors. For example, open or healing wounds, skin infections or the use of blood thinners should be mentioned before the start of the treatment. Additionally, if any of these types of conditions exist, the patient should always consult with their physician to make sure that massage is an acceptable therapy.

As people become more stressed with our fast paced society, they acquire more conditions which keep them from living life to the fullest. Massage therapy is once again improving the lives of thousands of people, as it has done throughout history.

1 Treatise on Massage, Theoretical and Practical Douglas Graham

2 “2007 National Health Interview Survey”

3 Mosby’s Medical Dictionary

4 Mosby’s Medical Dictionary

5 http://www.thebodyworker.com/triggerpointdefinitions.html

6 http://www.holistic-online.com/massage/mas_pain.htm

7 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16162447

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