Your body’s physiological response to massage
Massage is sometimes stereotypically viewed exclusively as a way to relax. Palms and thumbs work the shoulders and back as scented oils, candles, dark rooms and tranquilizing music offer a special unwinding treat.
But the reality is that massage can promote athletic and medical recovery, and according to the American Massage Therapy Association, more Americans are discussing its benefits with their physicians and other health care providers.
Massage therapy dates back thousands of years, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. References to massage appear in ancient writings from China, Japan, India and Egypt.
Past clinical studies and research reviews have shown that it can help with a wide variety of issues, ranging from short-term pain relief and mood-boosting for cancer patients, managing chronic pain and helping some individuals with depression – all with a track record of low risk when performed by a trained practitioner.
While it shouldn’t be looked at to replace conventional care or a way to postpone seeing a health care provider about a medical problem, says John Jardon, a massage therapist at the Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital Health and Wellness Center, getting a massage can go a long way toward keeping your body in tip top shape.
“I like to compare our bodies to a car that runs on gasoline – both are very complex. Both take in fuel and combine it with oxygen and create energy,” he says. “And just like a tune-up and maintenance can help to keep the car on the road, massage is a maintenance of our bodies that can help us keep going.”
So, what physically happens to your body when you get a massage?
First, massage causes the relaxation response, which according to the University of Minnesota, is an involuntary physiological response in the nervous system brought about by the sense of physical touch.
Your heart and breathing rate slow, your blood pressure goes down, the production of stress hormones decreases and your muscles relax.
Second are the mechanical responses when pressure is applied to the body, namely relaxing of the soft tissues and improved circulation.
Sometimes, when muscles are contracted due to stress, injury or overuse, they can compress the nerves around them. This can lead to pain and impaired nerve function, which can have effects on the neurological pain pathways throughout the body. Massage helps that by relaxing the muscles, tendons and ligaments.
The physical pressure of massage may also improve blood circulation throughout the body, enhancing the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to muscle cells while hastening the removal of waste products that cause swelling and other muscle issues.
Those little benefits can help stave off accumulated problems and increase recovery, particularly in those exercising frequently.
“Sometimes routine work is all that is needed. Sometimes more specific maintenance, focused on a specific problem the client is having, is required,” Jardon says. “To continue the metaphor, the athlete is like a race car, needing pre-event tune-up, after-event maintenance and long-term preventative maintenance to reduce risk of injury and improve performance.”
Generally, Jardon says massage can help with:
- Physical relaxation
- Relief for tight muscles and other aches and pains
- Release of nerve compression, including carpal tunnel and sciatica
- Greater flexibility and range of motion
- Healing scar tissue
“Our bodies need to last us a lifetime, so we need to take good care of them,” Jardon says. “The human body is very good at taking care of itself. Massage can help the body do that but is only one part of the puzzle. All the other pieces need to fit together for optimum health.”
About the Author
Nathan Lurz, health enews contributor, is a public affairs coordinator at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital. He has nearly a decade of professional news experience as a reporter and editor, and a lifetime of experience as an enthusiastic learner. On the side, he enjoys writing even more, tabletop games, reading, running and explaining that his dog is actually the cutest dog, not yours, sorry.