It's not hokum — massage therapy is real medicine without the shots and pills. Research suggests it can boost immunity, help sleeplessness, and more. And you don't even need a prescription, even though some doctors "prescribe" it regularly for themselves.
"All of our surgery patients are offered the treatment — I call it 'service with a smile' —and it's a mandatory weekly prescription I give myself," Mehmet Oz, M.D., director of the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital, told CNN.
Here are some of the benefits you may receive from massage therapy. For the best results, put yourself in the hands of a trained professional:
1. Ease pain. Massages are particularly effective for back pain, working better even than chiropractic therapy or acupuncture, according to researchers at the Group Health Center for Health Studies in Seattle. Massages help block your nervous system's pain receptors by boosting serotonin and dopamine, which are the feel-good hormones, while lowering the stress hormone cortisol.
According to a survey commissioned by the American Massage Therapy Association, 28 percent of Americans who got therapeutic massages said that when comparing medications to massages for pain relief, massage therapy gave them the greatest relief.
2. Lower blood pressure. A study conducted by the Touch Research Institute, the University of Miami School of Medicine, and Nova Southeastern University if Florida divided adults with high blood pressure into two groups. The first group received massage, and the second group received relaxation therapy. While both groups showed a reduction in anxiety and depression, only the group receiving massage showed decreases in blood pressure. Both their diastolic and systolic levels decreased and they also showed lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
3. Sleep better. According to a study by the Touch Research Institute, massage increases delta brain waves, which are the ones associated with deep sleep, even causing many massage recipients to fall asleep on the massage table. One study in conjunction with the University of Miami School of Medicine and Iris Burman of Miami's Education Hands School of Massage found that massage increased serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter made by the body that regulates sleep.
4. Boost your brain. Massages increase brain function, and the effect can last for 24 hours. A 15-minute chair massage raises alertness, according to the Touch Research Institute. Immediately following a massage, the brain waves of subjects indicated heightened alertness. They also solved math problems in less time with fewer errors.
5. Rev up your immune system. Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center found that a single massage creates changes in the immune and endocrine systems of healthy adults. "This research indicates that massage doesn't only feel good, it also may be good for you," lead researcher Dr. Mark Rapaport said in a news release. "People often seek out massage as part of a healthy lifestyle but there hasn't been much physiological proof of the body's heightened immune response following massage until now."
In one study by Dr. Gail Ironson at the University of Miami, HIV positive men were given 45-minute massages five days a week for a month. Their levels of natural killer cells increased, thus boosting the immune system, and serotonin levels were raised as well.
6. Elevate your mood. A review of more than a dozen studies found that massage therapy relieves depression and anxiety. Studies at the Touch Research Institute found that massage decreases activity in areas of the brain connected with feeling sad, and increases activity in areas that are activated when we’re happy. A review found massage therapy lowered the levels of the stress hormone cortisol by up to 53 percent. Massage can give many people such a feeling of well-being that some hospitals use it to prepare tense patients for surgery.
7. Stress relief. In a study of 32 young depressed moms, the subjects were divided into two groups. One group was given 10 massages over a five-week period that lasted 30 minutes each. The other group got the same number of 30-minute relaxing sessions — but no massages — for five weeks. While both groups showed a reduction in anxiety, the massage group also showed lower levels of stress hormones and positive changes in behavior. And a 2008 study published in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry found that massage therapy reduced stress, anxiety, and aggression in young adults. “Massage therapy had immediate beneficial effects on anxiety-related measures,” the researchers said in a statement.