Getting a massage is not just about doing something good for yourself, or loosening up a few tight muscles. Very reliable studies have demonstrated that it has multiple effects on both body and mind, enabling you to better stand up to stress, which can trigger illness.
In China and Japan, this manual therapy has been part of traditional medicine for more than 3,000 years. In ancient Greece and Rome, it was usual to massage gladiators after combat, and those suffering from illness for better convalescence. But in the West, Judeo-Christian morality, which frowns upon anything tactile, long kept a lid on this practice.
Little by little, not least with the rediscovery of Eastern practices, massage went mainstream. There is an array of massage techniques – Californian, Ayurvedic, Swedish, Chinese (Tui Na), Thai, etc. It was long believed that the positive impact of massage was only down to the increase in the skin temperature of the area being treated, to the excretion of toxic waste matter and most importantly to the placebo effect generated by being taken care of and pampered.
Yet a great many scientific studies have now shown that these virtues were related not least to chains of biochemical changes, which spread to the heart of cells where their DNA lies.
Directs benefits of massage on the body
As long as the massage is done well, by kindly expert hands, it has a great many effects.
Flexibility and mobility
Whether you’re a little too sedentary in lifestyle, not exercising enough, ill or getting on in years, a great many factors can restrict mobility and cause stiffness and contracture. The hands-on action of massage promotes restored flexibility and mobility.
Massage promotes loosening up and oxygenation of the muscles, and thereby helps release tightness and stiffness in the muscles. Because when a muscle remains contracted, it is poorly oxygenated. This contributes to a build-up of metabolic waste matter which causes pain and cramping. In addition, contraction has an impact on the tendons, joints, muscles and neighbouring tissues. Massage, with firm pressure, mobilisation and stretches, relieves tension points and areas and alleviates chronic pain, not least in the back, neck and shoulders. A great many clinical studies have noted that certain manoeuvres can reduce joint stiffness and chronic neuromuscular pain, relieve headaches and even remedy digestive disorders.
The benefits of massage on the whole body
The repercussions of massage go far beyond the area being treated.
Improvement of blood circulation
Massage pressure points directly affect the blood system and promote circulation. Massage stimulates vasodilation in blood vessels close to the surface and produces what’s called local hyperthermia: warming of the skin. The slight reddening associated with this skin warmth indicates an increase in blood flow, which increases the delivery of oxygen and nutrients and speeds up the excretion of toxins. The body gets its energy back, and increased vigour. The skin, tissues and muscles get more flexible and cardiovascular disorders partly prevented. In the legs, this improved circulation prevents the feeling of heavy legs and the appearance of varicose veins.
The anti-inflammatory effect
A study conducted in 2012 by researchers at McMaster University (Ontario) and published in the journal Science Translational Medicine showed that a 10-minute massage reduces the production of cytokines (inflammation messengers) and at the same time stimulates the production of mitochondria (the cells’ power plants). This mechanism is similar to that of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). The researchers take the view that massage therapy has the merit of coupling repair with pain reduction. So massages have a big advantage compared to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which do reduce inflammation and pain, but delay cell recovery and have unwanted side effects.
Strengthening of the immune system
Massage also stimulates the lymphatic system, which helps with proper function of the immune system, reinforcing its defensive action against bacteria and viruses. The body is better prepared to protect itself against illnesses. Thanks to improved lymph system flow, the body naturally excretes toxins via urine. To promote this process and maximise the benefits of massage, it’s primordial to drink lots of water and hydrate yourself well after a massage therapy session.
But massage also has an indirect effect on the immune system, due to its effects on the mind.
The benefits of massage on the mind
Massage even has an effect on the brain.
Forceful manoeuvres on the body, like those carried out in Swedish, Californian and Thai massage, activate the parasympathetic nervous system. When specific, deep touch receptors located in the dermis are stimulated, nerve impulses are sent to the bone marrow, which carries them to the brain. In response, the brain starts producing large quantities of dopamine, serotonin and endorphin (the brain’s happy hormones) which then spread throughout the body. A study conducted in 2010 at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles also showed that a significant reduction in the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol also ensued. Breathing is slowed, and a state of general relaxation ensues. So massage can have an anti-anxiety effect and trigger a feeling of wellbeing which is relaxing and helps counter depression.
By acting on the nervous system, massage promotes the act of letting go, which can come close to something approaching meditation or hypnosis. A state which the brain can remember and return to subsequently, at bedtime.
Some massages manage to expunge repressed emotions, physical and mental tensions thanks to pressure points close to those used in shiatsu or acupuncture. Alternatively, some sophrologists offer biodynamic massages that have a similar effect. Combining touch and speech can help release traumata which lie deep within the body and cause psychosomatic ailments.
Body image reappropriation
To take the step of going and getting a massage, you have to accept the idea of being touched. This requires you to have come some way in terms of your relationship with your body, your acceptance of it and recognising the value of your appearance. Massage itself improves the overall body image: both perception of bodily integrity, since massage involves all of it, and perception of bodily strength, since massage mobilises muscles hidden beneath the exterior.
By working on the nervous system, massage therapy has a positive impact on the whole body, both physically and mentally. Because everything is connected. Stress leads to less of a good night’s sleep, which weakens the immune system, reduces overall energy levels and leaves you more exposed to illness. To address this, several massage sessions are generally needed.
Good to know : Here in France, physiotherapists have long claimed exclusivity over massage, backed by legal action, leaving other practitioners with the right to offer nothing more than “sculpting treatments” [“modelages”]. The healthcare system modernisation act of January 2016 clarified the situation. The term “massage” is gone. In addition, Article R4321-1 of executive order no. 2015-1110 reserves rehabilitation treatments (done manually or with apparatus) for massage therapists/physiotherapists, thereby leaving space for wellbeing massage practitioners.