Massage therapy may help boost focus, relieve anxiety, and even improve sleep.
When it comes to relaxation, there are a few things we all associate with that it: spa days, cozying up by the fire, staying in bed until 2 p.m. and, of course, getting a massage. And although massage is great for helping you relax, it has more therapeutic benefits, too.
The term “massage” itself actually encompasses a wide array of different types of massage, ranging from Swedish massage (the most common type), to massages that have a more targeted and specific purpose, like a sports massage, which is aimed at helping athletes recover.
No matter the type, the benefits of massage really come down to one thing: pressure. “The skin is moved during a moderate pressure massage, which results in a calming and slowing of the nervous system,” says Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. And that slowing of the nervous system leads to other physiological effects, too, like a decrease in heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and changes in EEG patterns (electrical activity in your brain), says Field.
Plus, in order to see those effects, it takes less time than you might think. “For research, we’re able to document positive effects for massages that are only 20 minutes long,” says Mark Hyman Rapaport, MD, chief of psychiatric services at Emory Healthcare, who has led multiple studies focused on the effects of massage. That means when you go to get a massage (most of which are usually advertised for being around 50 minutes long, says Dr. Rapaport), you’re under pressure for more than enough time to see optimal benefits.
And if you can’t afford to head to the spa down the street? “You do not need to go to a massage therapist all the time,” says Field. “You can give yourself a massage.” Since we’re able to reach most areas on our body, you can do a 20-minute self-massage by using a massage brush in the shower or even rubbing a tennis ball against your limbs, she explains.
So if you’re thinking about booking a time or investing in a self-massager, here are six of the therapy’s biggest benefits to know about.
If you suffer with anxiety, one study suggests that a massage can actually help significantly reduce your symptoms. “What we think is going on is it’s decreasing the sympathetic tone that we see with people with generalized anxiety disorder and increasing this sort of parasympathetic response,” says Dr. Rapaport, who led the study.
Your body actually has two different nervous systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. “Your sympathetic is fight or flight,” says Rudy Gehrman, DC, a sports medicine chiropractor and founder of Physio Logic in New York. “If you’re getting chased by a lion, that’s your sympathetic nervous system.”
During a massage, however, your parasympathetic (or calming) response is increased, which results in a decrease in anxiety, says Dr. Rapaport.
And equally great news? Those effects of massage on decreased anxiety can actually be long-lasting. “We did an informal follow-up, and a significant number of these people remained anxiety-free anywhere from six months to 18 months later,” says Dr. Rapaport.
Sleep more soundly
Have trouble sleeping or suffer from insomnia? Massage can actually help you sleep more deeply. “Sleep is all related to how much activity there is in the nervous system,” says Field. And when you get a massage, your nervous system itself actually slows down due to the pressure.
Plus, when you’re getting deeper, more restorative sleep, she says, that in turn reduces your levels of substance P (a neurotransmitter for pain), which reduces overall pain. So if you have any aches, massage will do double-duty.
We’ve all been there: You’ve been tossing and turning all night, work has been completely draining, and you feel like you don’t even have five minutes to take a deep breath. “Some people get fatigued because they’re not sleeping enough,” says Dr. Rapaport. “Other people are getting fatigued because of some biological factors.”
But no matter what the cause of your fatigue is, one easy solution is (you guessed it) a massage. In fact, one 2018 study led by Dr. Rapaport found that breast cancer survivors who received weekly Swedish massages experienced a reduction in their fatigue, a particularly debilitating effect of the disease. To get the best effects, based on Dr. Rapaport’s study, try getting a massage once per week.
Aid certain health conditions
Your body has two different immune responses: Th1 and Th2, and they need to be in balance in order to have your immune system working optimally, says Field. “If the Th2 gets in excess of the Th1 system, then you have autoimmune problems,” she says.
But during massage, you’re slowing down stress hormones to help maintain this balance, she says. In turn, this can help make autoimmune conditions like asthma, type 1 diabetes, or dermatitis, more manageable through things like decreased pain or fatigue.
Have trouble staying present in a meeting for more than 10 minutes or reading a book before bed? The effects of a massage will actually help improve your attention and ability to focus.
That’s because in order for you to best pay attention, your heart rate needs to be lowered. “If I’m not paying attention, it’s usually because my heart rate’s elevated,” says Field. “And when I get my heart rate down, I’ll be more attentive.”
Because a massage slows your nervous system, your heart rate is effectively slowed down, too. During a massage, your pressure receptors stimulate vagal activity, which stems from a nerve in your brain that leads to several different branches of the body, including the heart, says Field. So when you’re undergoing the pressure of a massage, it could decrease your heart rate, as well, which ultimately will improve your focus.
If you experience an injury or joint pain (especially if the problem is long-term or chronic), says Gehrman, you’ll also have what are called soft-tissue restrictions, which cause knots or trigger points of pain. “Massage therapists are getting rid of soft-tissue restrictions and increasing circulation,” he says.
Those restrictions can, over time, lead to problems like joint decay or other ligament problems, so by actively massaging out those soft-tissue restrictions, you’re not only helping your current injury, but also helping prevent against other problems down the road. But the important thing when getting a massage for your injury is going to an experienced, licensed massage therapist who has extensive experience with injured patients.
“Because any type of soft tissue work, you’re in essence causing scientific damage, and if you work too deep, then that person can’t heal from that treatment,” says Gehrman. A good, licensed massage therapist will be able to assess which areas around the injury need massage, and which areas are best to avoid.
Are there any massage risks?
Although there aren’t any proven risks of massage, if you have a medical history involving things like cardiovascular disease, cancer, or diabetes, these are things you should make your massage therapist aware of and go to a therapist who has experience with that particular problem.
Pregnant women should also seek out a therapist with pregnancy experience—“For pregnant females, you have to be really, really careful with positioning,” says Gehrman.
People with osteoporosis should find a therapist with experience in that, as well. “You can easily potentially break bones or ribs if a person is really, really osteoporotic,” says Gehrman.
How can I find a credible massage therapist?
The best (and easiest) way? “Call a local massage therapy school or the American Massage Therapy Association,” says Field. Massage therapy schools, in particular, put their massage therapists through intensive training, so you’ll know the therapist you’re going to is reliable.
“It’s a very extensive training,” says Gehrman. “It’s very thorough in anatomy.” If your massage therapist first takes note of your age, your current health status, and any previous medical history, that’s how you’ll know you’re (literally) in good hands.