Science Answers: Are Massages for Lazy Sundays or Real Recovery?

Woman getting massage
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A massage is all about getting pampered and relaxing so much that you feel like you’re going to melt into the table — or so a lot of us think.

And, sure, a good massage should do all these things, but there’s so much more it can do for you, including working out tight muscles and knots of tension.

“Massage is such an amazing tool for wellness,” says Wil Lewis, a New York City-based massage therapist. “From both the psychological and physical aspects, there’s a lot there.”

From easing chronic pain to helping you sleep better, here are seven real benefits of massage — and the science behind them.

Massage may help the 28% of Americans who reported having lower back pain in the last three months. In a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, 400 people with lower back pain received either structural massage (using soft tissue techniques to reduce pain), relaxation massage or typical medical care once a week for 10 weeks. Those who got either type of massage reported improved function and less pain for up to six months after.

“Stimulating pressure receptors under the skin stimulates the vagus nerve,” says Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. “This causes your body to increase production of serotonin, the body’s anti-pain chemical.”

Massage may also ease a whopper of a headache, according to several small studies.

One study by University of Colorado researchers followed people who experienced frequent, severe headaches (we’re talking four-plus hours of pain) as they got two massages a week for six weeks. Three weeks after the study wrapped, subjects said they experienced 1.5 more headache-free days per week. They also reported that when they did have headaches, they lasted an average of 1.2 hours less and were 30% less intense.

Massage may decrease the number of knots of tension you have and boost the pain threshold of those that don’t get kneaded out, researchers say.

Thanks to modern life, we tend to be in fight-or-flight mode most of the time. It’s like we’re running away from predators, except, instead of wolves, we’re being chased by work and social pressures.

“Our stress is constant: We have deadlines, bills, traffic — all these tasks that our survival depends on, so we’re in fight or flight for days or weeks at time,” Lewis says. “That can make you irritable, reactive, prone to illness and think less clearly.”

“Massage creates a safe place that’s all about nurturing and self-care,” he says. “That puts you into rest-and-digest mode, where the body can heal.” This reduces adrenaline and cortisol so you can chill.

Massages might even fortify your immune system. “It kick-starts your lymphatic system,” says Laura Benge, national spa director for Exhale Spa. This system carries immune cells throughout your body, and, by stimulating it with massage, it appears to increase the production and activity of natural killer cells.

There’s a reason athletes invest in massage therapists: A massage can help optimize muscle, tendon and ligament function, so you can move at your best.

Healthy muscles are autonomous; each is well-defined from the other, Lewis explains. But unhealthy muscles are tight, there’s less circulation flowing through them and they kind of glue together.

“They become brittle, can get injured easily and reduce your ability to perform since they can’t fire as quickly or move as efficiently,” Lewis says.

During a massage, a therapist helps separate the muscles from one another again so blood flows more easily, making them more pliable. “Massage helps your muscles heal faster and increases flexibility and range of motion,” says Cynde Montilla, a massage therapist at The Sisley Spa.

And this benefits not only professional athletes and regular gym-goers but also desk jockeys.

The impact massage has on your body’s hormones is pretty impressive — and can positively affect how you feel. Research shows it can decrease the stress hormone cortisol by about 31%, boost dopamine (which controls the brain’s pleasure centers) by 31% and boost serotonin (which plays a role in mood and other things) by 28%.

That surge of feel-good chemicals may be why a meta-analysis of 17 studies concluded that massage may alleviate the symptoms of depression.

A good massage may not only put you to sleep on the table, it could also help you sleep better in your own bed. Studies show that massage may improve sleep quality and reduce the severity of insomnia.

Authors of a 2015 study say the combined effects of massage — lowering heart rate, anxiety, stress, blood pressure and cortisol — may add up to better ZZZs. “If you’re less stressed and feeling better in general, it improves sleep quality,” Benge says.

For all of these benefits, the more often you go, the better the results.

“The benefits of massage are cumulative,” Lewis says. “It’s just like exercise and nutrition. If you were to work out once or eat one really healthy meal, it would feel good, but you wouldn’t get the long-term benefits of a regular exercise regimen or eating healthy all the time.”

So although massage may never become a weekly thing for you, try to get one as often as makes sense for your budget and your body.

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