All manner of assertions are made about the benefits of massage. But are they all true? And how do we know?
It used to be that everything we knew about massage was based on anecdotal evidence and observation. As scientists have learned more about the how the human body functions, however, and as interest has grown in complementary and alternative therapies, researchers have started to examine some of the claims made for massage. It is frequently alleged, for instance, that massage can reduce blood pressure.
This claim is, of course, relatively easy to test. Blood pressure can be checked, using a blood pressure cuff, before a massage and then again afterward. If someone’s blood pressure is lower for the after measure and there were no other variables, it seems pretty clear that massage was responsible for the change—especially when these results are replicated numerous times with numerous subjects.
And, in fact, a variety of studies have shown that massage lowers both diastolic and systolic blood pressure. (Diastolic, as you may recall, refers to the pressure between beats, or when your heart is at rest, whereas systolic is the pressure during a heartbeat and is higher than the diastolic pressure.) A study that looked at the effects of a relaxing back massage on hospice patients found not only that blood pressure was lower following the massage but that it actually continued to decrease when they measured again, several minutes later. Even a five-minute hand massage has been shown to lower blood pressure significantly.
It appears, however, that not every kind of massage has this effect on blood pressure. For instance, researchers at the National University of Health Sciences in Lombard, IL, examined the effect of different types of massages on blood pressure and found that recipients of trigger point therapy (in which sustained pressure is applied to a knot to help it release) and sports massage (a vigorous massage using a variety of techniques) had, in fact, higher blood pressure just following treatment. This is not surprising when you consider that intensive therapies such as these can sometimes create temporary discomfort and, further, when you consider that acute pain has been shown to lead to a surge of adrenalin, which in turn increases heart rate and blood pressure. But as soon as adrenalin levels fall back to normal, so do heart rate and blood pressure. Assuredly, though, neither of these types of massage would be good choices if your goal was to lower blood pressure. Then again, relaxation and stress relief are not the intent of such massages.
For something like Swedish massage, though, which does lower blood pressure, how does it do so? Massage, as it turns out, causes a decrease of the hormone arginine vasopressin (AVP)—which constricts blood vessels and raises blood pressure. The test subjects for the research demonstrating this submitted to having blood drawn numerous times before and after the massage via catheters inserted into the arm for the duration. This fact makes the results even more impressive, given that getting a forty-five-minute massage with a needle poking into your arm is not an entirely stress-free circumstance.
While lowering blood pressure is, in and of itself, a good thing, when you take into consideration that high blood pressure is linked to elevated measures of stress, anxiety, the “flight-or-fight” hormones known collectively as catecholamines, depression, and hostility, reducing blood pressure levels takes on even greater importance. Massage may not be “just what the doctor ordered (yet)—but it should be! Massage: it does a body good!
Aourell, Moa, et al. 2005. “Effects of Swedish Massage on Blood Pressure.” Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice 11:242–46.
Cambron, Jerrilyn A. 2006. “Changes in Blood Pressure after Various Forms of Therapeutic Massage: A Preliminary Study.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 12:65–70.
Cloud, John. 2011. “The Lab Rat Gets Petted: How Massage Works.” Time.com, January 19.
Fraser, Joy, and Janet Ross Kerr. 1993. “Psychological Effects of Back Massage on Elderly Institutionalized Patients.” Journal of Advanced Nursing 18:238–45.
Hernandez-Reif, Maria, et al. 2000. “High Blood Pressure and Associated Symptoms Reduced by Massage Therapy.” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies 4:31–38.
Kaye, David Alan, et al. 2008. “The Effect of Deep-Tissue Massage Therapy on Blood Pressure and Heart Rate.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 14:125–28.
Kim, Man Soo, et al. 2001. “Effects of Hand Massage on Anxiety in Cataract Surgery Using Local Anesthesia.” Journal of Cataract and Refractive Surgery 27:884–90.
Meek, Sandra S. 2003. “Effects of Slow Stroke Back Massage on Relaxation in Hospice Clients.” IMAGE: Journal of Nursing Scholarship 25:17–21.