What is Massage Therapy?
Put simply, massage therapy is a treatment that manipulates the soft tissues of your body using varying degrees of movement and pressure. However, the practice of massage therapy is much more nuanced than that.
Depending on the type of massage therapy you select, you can expect everything from kneading and long strokes to vibration, tapping, and application of warmth.
Massage is an age-old practice with roots in ancient China, Egypt, Japan, and Greece. Each of these ancient civilizations developed and practiced massage as a medical benefit through a wide range of techniques. They documented their practices in writing and also had schools to teach their craft.
Although these cultures practiced different variations of massage, the end result was often the same: decreased muscle tension, stress, and pain, and increased comfort and overall feeling of wellbeing.
As the word and magic of massage has spread, modern western civilization has come to embrace massage both for its health and recreational benefits. Research estimates that massage therapy was a $16 billion industry in the US in 2017.
And finding a massage therapist is more widely available than ever: doctors’ offices, private in-home practices, on-demand apps, and vacation experiences all offer an opening to try it for yourself.
The reasons for massage popularity are clear: besides the obvious recreational benefits, studies have also proven how powerful massage can be to improve symptoms of serious conditions. In fact, about 19% of adult Americans received at least one massage over the period of one year — and most did so to reap the health benefits.
Of course, no two massages are quite alike. They’re custom tailored with specific ends in mind. And even though it’s generally safe, people with specific conditions should avoid massage practices that will exacerbate any current problems.
Throughout this article, we’ll break down how massage works, along with the exceptional moments when you shouldn’t use massage therapy to improve your condition.
How does it work?
Massage is made with you in mind — to improve your health and wellbeing, or even just help you feel more relaxed.
Some massage therapists will go out of their way to create an ambiance that sets the tone for an enjoyable experience. They may accomplish this through relaxing music, dimmed lighting, and pleasant scents.
You can expect a consultation with your massage therapist when you make an appointment. They’ll ask if you have any particular pains or past ailments they should be aware of before they start.
Once the general consultation is over, many therapists provide you with a space to remove your clothing so they can better massage you. When this happens, they will leave the room and allow you to change. More often than not, you’ll have a cloth or towel to cover you so you’re not fully exposed.
After that, you’ll spend between 30-90 minutes of massage either on a massage chair or a massage table. When the session is over, they leave the room so you can re-dress by yourself.
If you’re not comfortable with removing your clothing for a massage, not to worry. Some types of massage actually occur with clothing. Or, you can bring up this concern to your massage therapist and they’ll find a way to accommodate you.
What conditions can massage help treat?
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that supports the benefits of massage. But if you’re looking for more serious evidence, there are a wealth of studies that demonstrate the link between massages and decreased pain and symptoms for various conditions.
Studies have shown that massage can help improve symptoms for a wide range of conditions, including…
- Multiple sclerosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- High blood pressure
- Digestive disorders
Various health problems:
- Back pain
- Soft tissue injuries
- Chemotherapy-related nausea
So, how does massage make a positive impact on so many different health conditions? One key: multiple studies have shown that massage therapy reduces cortisol levels and increases oxytocin levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that supports your “fight or flight” response. When your body is exposed to it long-term, you may experience anxiety, depression, sleep problems, weight gain, and even heart disease.
Oxytocin, on the other hand, is known as the “love” hormone. Besides its regular positive side effects, its presence has been shown to benefit people with autism, social anxiety, schizophrenia, and post traumatic stress disorder.
It stands to reason that many of the studies on massage and chronic health conditions demonstrated decreased cortisol and increased oxytocin in patients, allowing them to feel less painful symptoms and heal more quickly.
For example, one study of children going through chemotherapy showed the children who received regular Swedish massage had less painful and less frequent bouts of vomiting.
And even if you don’t experience a chronic illness but are looking for improved wellbeing or relief from pain overall, massage is an excellent option. One study showed that massage therapy helped hospital patients cope with both the emotional and physical aspects of pain.
Is Massage Therapy Safe?
Massage therapy is generally a safe practice that benefits its recipients. However, if you have certain ailments or conditions — or if you’re unlucky enough to encounter a poorly trained practitioner — your massage experience can quickly go south.
For your health, you should make sure the location where you receive your massage is hygenic and includes proper and safe equipment. Nobody wants to lay down on a flimsy massage table.
Adverse side effects of massage that are more run-of-the-mill include muscle pain and soreness during the first few days following the massage. However, you can often avoid this by seeking out a certified and trained massage therapist.
Certified massage therapists generally have to go through academic study, supervised training, and a requisite amount of practice hours to obtain their license. Most states have massage therapy license requirements, with exceptions.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Vermont, Kansas, and Wyoming don’t have any certification laws on the books. However, you should still be able to find someone who has verifiable certifications regardless. If not, look elsewhere so you don’t risk injury.
Of course, there is the off chance that your massage can go awry even if you have a certified massage therapist. For example, one study showed that cancer patients risk more adverse side effects than non-cancerous massage recipients. Spinal manipulation has also produced more adverse risks, though it is still considered generally safe.
And expecting mothers can definitely benefit from a massage — however, they may risk an increased likelihood of miscarriage during a first trimester massage. Pregnant women with high-risk pregnancy concerns, a recent organ transplant, or high blood pressure should also tread carefully when considering a massage.
It’s important to research different massage types if you have a specific medical condition you’re trying to treat. As we explore more in the following section, for example, people with lupus should probably steer clear from a deep tissue massage.