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Mayo Clinic explores: The role of massage therapy for mental health

© Mayo Clinic

If you’re experiencing tension, stress or pain, a little bit of touch may be just what you need. Massage — a general term for pressing, rubbing, and manipulating your skin, muscles, tendons, and ligaments — has been used for thousands of years in many cultures to heal, soothe, and relieve physical and emotional pain.

Today, massage is being offered more frequently along with standard treatment for a wide range of medical conditions and situations including issues with mental health. Mayo Clinic recognizes the value of massage therapy as an aspect of wellness and has been integrating massage therapy into the hospital setting for almost 20 years.

A massage may help you relax. But it can’t cure everything that ails you. And if performed incorrectly, it could hurt you. Learning about massage before you have it can help ensure that the experience is safe and enjoyable.

What makes it effective?

Massage is effective for several reasons. First, muscles and tissues are being manipulated in a structured and purposeful way. This movement can help reduce pain, align the body and improve posture. Second, massage harnesses the power of human touch. Environment also plays a role in the healing power of massage. For instance:

  • Massage usually occurs in a safe, quiet, pleasant space.
  • Aromatherapy is often used to assist in relaxation or address symptoms.
  • Relaxing, soothing music generally plays during a session.
  • Natural elements and plants also may be present, helping to promote thoughts of health and healing.

In most studies of massage therapy, researchers have found that people say their overall well-being is improved. Several studies also suggest that massage makes positive changes to the body, including a decrease in some stress chemicals, such as cortisol. Beyond its specific treatment benefits, people enjoy massage because it often involves caring, comfort, a sense of empowerment and a connection with a massage therapist.

Despite the many benefits, massages should not replace conventional medical care. As with all integrative therapies, tell your doctor you’re trying massage and be sure to continue your standard treatment plans.

What the research says.

Massage effectively reduces stress, pain, and muscle tension. Researchers find that massage releases endorphins— the body’s natural painkillers. It can also reduce the heart rate and may even impact the immune system. Specific areas of benefit include:

  • Mental health and wellness —Massage therapy offers benefits for a number of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety and stress. Research also shows that massage can help people coping with seasonal affective disorder by improving mood and boosting energy levels.
  • Pain — Massage is useful for chronic low back pain and neck pain, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis of the knee, burn rehabilitation or pain from scar tissue, and pain after heart surgery.
  • Fibromyalgia — In terms of pain management, fibromyalgia has been a specific area of study for massage research. Researchers see potential benefits in the use of massage to relieve fibromyalgia symptoms if the therapy is continued long term.
  • Heart health — In addition to relieving pain after heart surgery, massage may be therapeutic from a prevention standpoint. Massage therapy has been shown to help lower blood pressure and manage stress, both of which can promote heart health.
  • Aging — Massage therapy treats the aches and pains of aging and helps manage chronic pain. Researchers have found that regular massage promotes relaxation and stability and even lessens the effects of dementia, high blood pressure and osteoarthritis.
  • Cancer — Massage may reduce pain, improve mood, promote relaxation and improve sleep in people with cancer. A massage therapist must take special precautions when treating someone with cancer, so finding a skilled therapist is important.

Risks of massage

Most people can benefit from massage, but it’s not appropriate for everyone. If you have had a recent heart attack, have a bleeding disorder or are taking blood-thinning medication, talk to your doctor first. Also talk to your doctor before trying massage if you’ve had a recent blood clot in your leg or you have newer burns, fractures, or severe osteoporosis; massage may be harmful in these cases. Massage should not be performed directly on tumors, and people with healing wounds or nerve damage should avoid pressure on affected areas of the body. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t feel significant pain during a massage, although some forms can leave you feeling a bit sore the next day. If a massage therapist is pushing too hard, ask for lighter pressure.


Copyright © 2021 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Rochester, MN 55905. All rights reserved.
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