Six Ways Massage Improves Your Health

Six Ways Massage Improves Your Health, by Debra DeAngelo

(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)

Many view massage as nothing more than frivolous pampering or an unnecessary luxury (and there's nothing wrong with luxurious pampering!), but massage is so much more than that. It's an extra boost that elevates your health to its optimum. It's the difference between feeling good and feeling great, and deserves its rightful spot in your regular health regime, right alongside nutritious food, good sleep, and regular exercise.

Massage isn't merely spreading warm oil over the skin and kneading tight muscles—even though that feels great and is reason enough to get one! Even the harshest of critics—those in the medical and science communities—are acknowledging that massage does much more than facilitate relaxation. Massage has been validated as a healing catalyst for a variety of physical and psychological conditions by some of the most respected institutions in the medical community, such as the Mayo Clinic and National Institute of Health.

Can you get by without massage? Sure. Should you? Heavens no. Massage is a cornucopia of healing for both body and mind. It's not a luxury—it's a necessity! We need to embrace a new health paradigm that includes massage as integral to our physical, emotional, and even spiritual health. The benefits of massage are many. Here are six ways massage and soothing human touch promote optimal overall health.

1. Touch Heals
The list of physical and psychological conditions that benefit from massage is extensive and varied. The medical community is finally acknowledging that therapeutic massage can alleviate, and sometimes eliminate, a whole host of conditions, including digestive disorders, fibromyalgia, headaches, back and neck pain, myofascial pain, nerve pain, tendonitis, soft tissue strains and injuries, sports injuries, joint pain, arthritis, inflammation, chronic pain, and high blood pressure.

Massage can facilitate recovery after an injury or surgery, can help patients cope with chemotherapy, and can be an important component to physical therapy or chiropractic treatment. It assists blood circulation and lymph drainage, and can also ease the discomforts of pregnancy and labor. It's even beneficial to newborns and infants for relieving colic and fussiness, and enriching the bonding process between parent and child.

And that's just the body! The psychological benefits of massage include relief for anxiety, Alzheimer's Disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder, sensory processing disorder, depression, dementia, grief, and insomnia. It's also highly beneficial for seniors, who often experience loneliness and isolation as they age.

Most of us will experience at least one of these physical or psychological conditions over the course of our lives. Why not head to the massage therapist's office rather than the pharmacy?

2. Touch is Preventative
Massage provides gentle, healing benefits from the moment we're born. Gentle, soothing, intentional touch is a proactive health practice that's beneficial from the moment of our first breath to the moment of our last. By improving circulation, flexibility, and muscle and tendon tone, and reducing blood pressure, anxiety, and inflammation, regular massage can help prevent the conditions and chronic pain that can arise from participating in sports or just doing our jobs. Whether it's sitting at a computer or standing at the cash register all day or loading heavy items onto shelves, repetitive motion creates wear and tear on our muscles, joints, and tendons. Just living in a body results in wear and tear if you do it long enough!

Massage also teaches us to relax, which comes in handy beyond the massage therapist's office. Learning to breathe deeply, slow your heartbeat, and release muscle tension can help us deal with the pressures, challenges, and frustrations of everyday life, from kids to co-workers to random rude strangers. Massage teaches us coping skills beyond yelling and shaking our fists. Learning—and choosing—to relax is a proactive practice for calming chronic anxiety, which itself can be the root of many health conditions like high blood pressure, headaches, and digestive disorders.

3. Touch Relieves Pain and Increases Pleasure
Whether the pain is physical or emotional, simple human touch can relieve it. Studies have shown that simply holding the hand of another person—even that of a stranger—can reduce a person's experience of pain. However, the pain relief is substantially more when the touch comes from a loved one or partner.

Touch stimulates our "Pacinian corpuscles," which are located throughout the body in the deep layers of the skin. They respond to pressure, and stimulate the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve detects gentle, safe pressure, it triggers a calming response, which in turn lowers blood pressure and heart rate. When that gentle pressure (touch) is provided by a trusted loved one, the vagus nerve prompts the brain to release the hormone oxytocin, which promotes relaxation, trust, and bonding. Nicknamed the "love hormone" and the "cuddle chemical," oxytocin is also released when we're in love, sexually aroused, or bonding with our infants. Soothing touch also stimulates the orbital frontal cortex in the brain, which responds to rewarding stimuli like sweets and pleasant scents.

All these physiological responses can be prompted by simple touch, such as holding a hand or rubbing the back. Consider how magnified these responses are when the Pacinian corpuscles are being stimulated all over the body for an hour. No wonder massage feels so heavenly! In addition to our skin and muscles being soothed, our cerebral pleasure centers are also being caressed and our brains are being bathed in lovely, relaxing oxytocin. Truly, massage is more than just skin deep. It's neurologically and biochemically transformative.

4. Touch Communicates
Touch is the most basic form of communication, not only for humans, but animals, too. Music is called the "universal language," but touch easily surpasses it. While music is part of human culture worldwide, touch has one up on music: It's spoken within, and across, species. Anyone who has a pet knows this. You stroke your cat, and she stretches and purrs with pleasure. Sensing distress, your dog licks your face or hand, and you immediately feel comforted. Animals have entire conversations through touch, without ever uttering a word. They cuddle, groom, lick, nudge, and nip. Many newborn mammals begin their lives with a warm, loving tongue massage from their mothers.

We've learned the importance of immediate physical contact between mother and infant from our animal siblings. Fresh, wet, squalling newborns are placed directly onto their mother's bare chest, and instantly calm down when they feel the warm comfort of Mama's skin and the safety of her loving arms. Even when we're far beyond infancy, the soothing touch of a trusted loved one is calming and reassuring. Sometimes what our partners, children, parents, or friends really need is a quiet hug or an arm around them—not more words. Touch can communicate, "Everything will be okay," or, "It's okay, you're safe," or, "I love you so very much," or simply, "I'm here for you." In our current society, we've become quite touch-phobic and suspicious of touch. Unwanted or unsafe touch is never okay, but we need to differentiate unwelcome touch from soothing, safe human touch, and reacquaint ourselves with physical contact again. We are hard-wired to crave touch. It's in our DNA.

5. Touch Is Life-Sustaining
Touch is vital to our very survival. A study done years ago in a Romanian orphanage revealed that infants given all the necessities for survival—food, water, clean clothing, and a crib—languished and ultimately lost their will to survive if one particular need wasn't met: human touch. They died not from physical hunger, but "skin hunger." Without safe, comforting, loving human touch, they "starved," and slowly slipped away.

Most of us are not, and were not, infants crying in an orphanage, but that powerful innate need for human touch is present nonetheless, even if we ignore, repress, or redirect it. We're hopefully able to get our skin hunger satiated in our close relationships, but if not, that gnawing desire gets pushed into the subconscious, and reemerges as a substitute "hunger." Because we aren't helpless infants in a crib, we find alternate ways to satisfy those hunger pangs: food, alcohol, shopping, and drugs, for example. But those things don't satisfy for long, and soon, the hunger pangs flare up again and demand attention, and once again, we attempt to squelch them with everything except what would actually satisfy: touch.

6. Touch Is Magic
If you talk to any magical practitioner, you'll usually discover that there are basically three components to magic: intention (what you want), implementation (what you do to achieve it), and manifestation (receiving the desired results). This is essentially what a massage therapist does: Decides what will be accomplished in that session (intention), performs the necessary techniques to achieve it (implementation), and concludes with their client in a state of blissful relaxation, the pathways wide open for receiving that intention (manifestation).

I discovered massage and the Pagan community simultaneously, and immediately recognized that the process of performing a magical ritual mirrors the process of doing a massage, and decided to blend them by structuring a massage as a magical ritual. Infusing a massage with magical energy and conducting it as a ritual takes massage next-level. It's the difference between a plain old cupcake and one with rainbow candy sprinkles. It's just yummier! Magic and massage, quite literally, go hand in hand.

Massage For All
With all the obvious health benefits of massage, it seems like everyone should be getting regular bodywork. But everyone isn't, and a major reason is the cost. On the average, a one-hour massage costs $100 in the US.

Massage for health maintenance isn't "one and done." You need regular massage (at least weekly) to really experience the health benefits. However, a $400 monthly massage bill puts it out of reach for many people. That's why I wrote Sacred Massage: The Magic and Ritual of Soothing Touch." We can learn to provide massage ourselves. You don't have to become a professional, you just need to learn some basic skills and have someone to practice with. You and a friend or partner can learn to provide the life-sustaining magic of soothing human touch for each other.

Beyond trading sessions with a massage buddy, there may be another reason for learning some massage basics: there may be someone in your life who desperately needs massage—a partner, parent, child, or friend—and who currently isn't able to get it. Sometimes the obstacle isn't even the cost. Some people have physical issues or limitations that make it difficult to get to a massage office; they may even be confined to bed or hospitalized. Sometimes there just isn't a good local massage therapist available. Some people simply aren't comfortable allowing a stranger to touch them. Whatever the obstacle, there's a solution: you.

Whether it's to learn to give and receive a soothing massage with a friend or loved one or to learn basic massage techniques to ease a friend or loved one's health condition, you can learn to provide it. You really can! If you have the desire to help and heal, you already have a healer's heart. You also already have the tools: your hands. You just need to learn to use them. I'll show you how.

Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2023. All rights reserved.