Science says massage relieves stress!

Researchers assigned healthy adults to receive 45 minutes of Swedish massage while the control group received light touch “using highly specified and identical protocols.”

(This is from a New York Times article, Regimens: Massage Benefits Are More Than Skin Deep. Here’s the abstract.)

The researchers took blood samples immediately before and for up to an hour after the massage.

Those who received Swedish massage had significant decreases in stress hormones. Their white blood cell counts went up as well, indicating the immune system was stimulated.

If replicated, these findings may have implications for managing inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.

Those who received light touch showed higher levels of oxytocin, the “bonding” hormone, and greater decreases in a hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol.

So basically, massage relieves stress and light touch increases bonding.

Now that science says so, the skeptics can come get on the table and experience it for themselves!

Several things pop out. One is that the research was sponsored by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of Health. I’m pretty sure the NIH is heavily biased toward MDs and western medicine, and that NCCAM fields like massage and acupuncture are considered flaky and suspect.

But if 75 or 90% of illness is stress-related, shouldn’t the NIH be emphasizing research on stress relief to prevent illness? That would be a great use of my tax money!

I would like to see more studies done on massage.

  • I’d like to see the blood tested to see how long these changes last, because my strong hunch is that if a massage recipient can avoid stress afterwards, the massage keeps working on the body for hours. Maybe 24 or 48 hours, but no one knows, because no one has studied it. Yet.
  • Could a control group be added of people who don’t receive massage or light touch?
  • Scientific study of prenatal massage and its effect on the women — and their childbirth and babies — would be wonderful.
  • I’d also like to see recipients’ brain waves tested, before, during, and after massage.
  • Does massage work equally well on everyone? Are there people who don’t benefit and “super beneficiaries”?
  • This study was on the effects of a single massage. I’d like to see longitudinal studies done of the long-term effect of regular massage: people who receive massage weekly, biweekly, and monthly for at least a year, five years, and ten years. All we have now is anecdotal evidence that people who receive regular massage are healthier into their senior years, falling and getting sick less often and recovering faster when they do.

The other thing that popped out was that the researchers were surprised by the results! They must have never received a massage. I wonder if they do now.

When I read the abstract, I saw that the authors did a follow-up study in 2012 on the effects of repeated massage. So I did get one wish, but these subjects received Swedish massage or light touch either weekly or twice a week for just five weeks. Otherwise, it was the same as the first study, which means they looked for changes for up to an hour after each massage.

Those receiving weekly Swedish massage sustained a higher level of white blood cells like those receiving a single massage, with minimal effect on stress hormones. Come on, not even the first massage changed stress hormone levels? That contradicts the first study!

Those receiving twice-weekly massage had increased oxytocin levels and lower stress hormone levels. So people getting more frequent massage bond more easily. I wonder if they used the same massage therapist each time.

The abstract says nothing about the light touch group. (And by the way, I have a hard time reading scientific research and understanding the findings and implications in plain English. This is the best I can do. If you know better, please comment!)

The authors conclude:

There are sustained cumulative biologic actions for the massage and touch interventions that persist for several days or a week, and these differ profoundly depending on the dosage (frequency) of sessions. Confirmatory studies in larger samples are needed.

Yes. And I am very glad that this research is happening and raising more questions.