Massage: A relaxing method to relieve stress and pain
A soothing massage can help you unwind, but that’s not all. Explore the health benefits and risks of massage therapy, plus what to expect. By Mayo Clinic staff
You might think of a massage only as a luxury in exotic spas and upscale health clubs. But did you know that massage therapy, when combined with traditional medical treatments, is used to reduce stress and pain and promote healing in people with certain health conditions?
What is massage therapy?
During a massage, a therapist manipulates your body’s soft tissues – your muscles, skin and tendons – using his or her fingertips, hands and fists. Massage can be performed by several types of health care professionals, such as a physical therapist, occupational therapist or massage therapist. Several versions of massage exist, and they’re performed in a variety of settings.
A massage may make you feel relaxed, but it isn’t likely to cure everything that ails you. And, if performed incorrectly, it could hurt you. Learning about massage before you try one can help ensure that the experience is safe and enjoyable.
Why it’s done
Massage can relieve tension in your muscles, and most people use it for relaxation, relief of stress and anxiety, or to reduce muscle soreness. Massage can also cause your body to release natural painkillers, and it may boost your immune system.
While more research is needed to confirm the benefits of massage, some studies have found it helpful for:
• Anxiety. Massage reduced anxiety in depressed children and anorexic women. It also reduced anxiety and withdrawal symptoms in adults trying to quit smoking.
• Pain. Pain was decreased in people with fibromyalgia, migraines and recent surgery. Back pain also might be relieved by massage. However, back pain study results have been contradictory, and more research is required.
• Labor pain. Massage during labor appears to lessen stress and anxiety, relax muscles and reduce pain.
• Infant growth. Massage encouraged weight gain in premature babies and reduced the number of days they stayed in the hospital.
• Children with diabetes. Children who were massaged every day by their parents were more likely to stick to their medication and diet regimens, which helped reduce their blood glucose levels.
• Sports-related soreness. Some athletes receive massages after exercise, especially to the muscles they use most in their sport or activity. A massage might help increase blood flow to your muscles and may reduce muscle soreness after you exercise.
• Alcohol withdrawal. Massage during withdrawal from alcohol has shown benefits when combined with traditional medical treatment by increasing feelings of support, safety and engagement in the therapy.
• Immune system. People with HIV who participated in massage studies showed an increased number of natural killer cells, which are thought to defend the body from viral and cancer cells.
• Cancer treatment. People with cancer who received regularly scheduled massage therapy during treatment reported less anxiety, pain and fatigue.
• Self-esteem. Because massage involves direct contact with another person through touch, it can make you feel cared for. That special attention can improve self-image in people with physical disabilities and terminal illnesses. And using touch to convey caring can help children with severe physical disabilities.
Massage: A relaxing method to relieve stress and pain
Risks of massage
Massage is generally safe as long as it’s done by a trained therapist. But massage isn’t for everyone. And for some people it can even be dangerous. Discuss massage with your doctor before making an appointment if you have:
• Burns or open wounds on the area to be massaged
• Had a recent heart attack
• Cancer • you’ll want to avoid direct pressure on the tumor area
• Deep vein thrombosis
• Unhealed fractures
• Rheumatoid arthritis in the area to be massaged
• Severe osteoporosis
In addition, talk to your doctor before getting a massage if you’re pregnant.
Massage done properly rarely leads to severe injuries. Ask your massage therapist about his or her training and qualifications – some states require licensing. And if any part of your massage doesn’t feel right or is painful, speak up right away. Most serious problems come from too much pressure during massage. In rare circumstances, massage can cause:
• Internal bleeding
• Nerve damage
• Temporary paralysis
Talk to your doctor and your massage therapist if you have any concerns about your risk of injury. Asking questions can help you feel more at ease.
What you can expect during a massage
No matter what kind of massage you choose, you should feel calm and relaxed during and after your massage. When you go for a massage, you can expect to:
• Answer a few questions. Your massage therapist will ask what you want from your massage. Are you looking for help with a pulled muscle? Massage therapists will also want to know about any medical conditions you may have, so they can decide if massage is safe for you or how to make it safer.
• Disrobe. You’ll be asked to remove your clothes, or at least most of them. Your massage therapist should give you privacy while you take your clothes off and provide a robe or a towel to cover yourself. A good massage therapist will protect your modesty and keep you covered as much as possible throughout the massage. If taking your clothes off doesn’t sound relaxing or if you’re pressed for time, try a chair massage. These massages are conducted while you sit in a special chair that slopes forward so the therapist can massage your back. You keep your clothes on for this massage – it’s often done in the open, rather than in a private room.
• Be asked to lie down. Most massages will require you to lie on a padded table. Pillows or bolsters might be used to position you during the massage. This allows you to relax completely during the massage. Music usually plays softly while you’re massaged.
• Have oils and lotions used on your skin. Some massage therapists use oils or lotions to reduce friction while massaging your body. If you’re allergic to any ingredients commonly found in body oils and lotions, tell your massage therapist. He or she might have products without that ingredient. You may opt not to use oils and lotions.
• Never feel significant pain. Pain that’s more significant than momentary discomfort could indicate that something is wrong. If a massage therapist is pushing too hard, tell him or her to lighten the pressure. Your massage therapist should receive feedback from you to determine how best to massage you. Occasionally you may have a sensitive spot in a muscle that feels like a knot. It’s likely to be uncomfortable while your massage therapist works it out. But if it becomes painful, speak up.