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Can Massage Improve the Fundamentals of Your Body's Health? New Medical Research Points to Yes

Evidence suggests massage can medically aid chronic health conditions, reduce pain, minimize anxiety and much more.
 
 
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In the U.S., massage is a multi-billion-dollar industry. As of July 2013, 16 percent of American adults received at least one massage in the last year. But, could it be that more Americans ought to get massages, and do so more regularly, to improve the fundamentals of their health? 

Recent medical research suggests this might be the case. 

In other words, those who are willing to plunk down as much as $90 for a 60-minute session appear to be doing more than treating themselves to having sore muscles and joints worked on, or relaxing. For those who are healthy, evidence suggests massage can help you stay healthy. If you’re suffering from a chronic health condition, massage might help reduce pain, minimize anxiety, improve sleep, and more.

Doctors are catching on, too. In 2013, 50 million adults said they discussed massage with their doctors or other healthcare providers in the previous year, although chiropractors were more likely to give patients referrals to receive massage therapy than physicians. Some insurance companies, like Group Health Cooperative of Wisconsin, recognize the medical benefits of massage and provide coverage for regular massages.

These days, scientists are studying the impacts of massage on everything from pain to immune function to weight gain in preterm infants. Mark Rapaport, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Emory School of Medicine, is one such scientist. He began by asking, “Why was it that so many people get massages? What was it doing?”

He obtained funding for an initial pilot study from the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to examine the effects of a single massage as well as regular massage over time on the body. Rapaport and his team wanted to know the impact massage might have on cortisol, oxytocin, immune function, and another stress hormone called arginine vasopressin (AVP).

Oxytocin is often thought of as a love hormone, although Rapaport notes the caveat that it’s “very complicated” and “involved in a lot of different things in the body… It’s a hormone that is thought to be central to affiliation. It’s thought to be important in how we interact with each other.”

AVP, on the other hand, can be thought of as the yang to oxytocin’s yin. “AVP can be involved in more aggressive behaviors,” notes Rapaport. “It can be involved in helping to trigger stress hormones like cortisol.” Thus, a decrease in AVP is “thought to facilitate people interacting with each other and being less stressed.”

As noted, cortisol is a stress hormone. But cortisol plays other roles, too, impacting brain function and food metabolism and suppressing immune function. It’s the sort of hormone that would help you stay alive if you were being chased by a bear. It’s not time to digest food or worry about fending off flu germs, it’s time to run fast! Digesting lunch can wait.

Since massage is thought of as a relaxing experience, it was not a stretch to hypothesize that perhaps massage would increase oxytocin and decrease AVP and cortisol, and do so more than what was observed in the control group.

Rapaport’s first study, published in 2010, simply looked at the impacts of a single, 45-minute Swedish massage on healthy individuals. As a control, they also had a second set of healthy adults undergo what they called “light touch” for 45-minute. The control group had a practitioner touching their body, but not performing any massage techniques. That way, they could find out if healthy adults who pay to receive massages from a professional receive benefits above and beyond what they might get from, say, the soothing touch of a loved one at home.

 
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