Using Massage Therapy to Improve Your Health

Sometimes at the end of a week filled with ringing phones, crashing computers, and tight deadlines I feel like I’ve been in a car wreck. My eyes are red from the twitching problem, my back and shoulders ache, and I have a nagging headache behind my ears. While everyone knows how awful “stress” is, sometimes we concentrate on how hard it is on our psyches and not on our bodies. But stress hurts us physically inside and out. Our bodies are giving us hints all the time. Luckily, we have a way to fight back! Massage. While the word is likely to inspire images of white robes, large Swedish women named Helga, and private spas only for the very wealthy, we need to change the way we think about massage therapy. Massage therapy is so much more than just a rub down – it can improve our health and well-being in significant ways.

Dr. Wanona Wellspring, a naprapathic physician at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, IL, cannot say enough about the benefits of massage. The first substantial physical benefit she claims is increased circulation. “Manipulation of soft tissue improves the supply of oxygenated blood to tissues and organs and assists in the removal of wastes and venous return of blood.” This increase in the spread of oxygenated blood, along with the body’s relaxation response to massage also enhances our immune system. “Stress reduction can increase natural killer cells,” explains Dr. Wellspring. “They are our bodies first line of defense.” Medical studies back up Dr. Wellspring’s claims. In a 1996 study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, massage therapy significantly increased the number of natural killer cells in the majority of 29 HIV-positive men who had received daily massages for one month.

Another study at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami tested for improved immune function on two groups of women diagnosed with breast cancer. Researchers found that 80% of women who received massage therapy three times a week for five weeks showed improved immune function, as opposed to only 30% of those who did not receive massage therapy.

With the increase in circulation and oxygenated blood comes another benefit – a kind of natural detoxification of the body. “Keeping the debris and toxins moving out of the body systems allows a healing process within the soft tissues to repair and grow healthy cells,” says Dr. Wellspring. “Detoxification affects our longevity. It affects how long we will stay young and healthy looking.”

Massage therapy can also relieve the pains we are experiencing from everyday strain and pressure. As those of us in the working world can testify, chronic stress manifests itself in backaches, grinding teeth, and tension headaches. “The relaxation response caused by massage actually counters the effects that chronic stress can have on the body,” notes Lee Stein, a message therapist associated with Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center. “Relaxation response puts less strain on the energy resources by decreasing oxygen consumption and metabolic rate. Decreasing heart rate, decreasing muscle tension, slowing the respiration, improving sleep quality – all of these states make a more conducive environment for the body to heal. This is what massage does.”

But that’s not all massage does. The healing power of touch has long been a popular alternative medicine approach. Another benefit of massage therapy is the way it affects our emotions and spirit. “Touch,” explains Brenda Griffith, president of the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), “is a basic component of life and living.” Griffith is confident that massage can really improve a person’s mental or emotional state. “Often we recommend massage for older women who are widows and who don’t have family nearby, or breast cancer survivors who have been poked and prodded for so long. These women are in great need of positive, loving touch.” Stein agrees on the psychological aspect. “Massage can break down barriers. It’s very freeing. Sometimes social workers and therapists send me people because they are having trouble with pent-up emotions, and they want that emotional breakthrough.”

Adopted into a routine, massage therapy can greatly improve our general lifestyle. Adding it to your fitness plan will probably increase endurance. “If you have a massage before a workout,” says Griffith, “it will warm up your muscles and get your circulation going, which usually leads to better performance. Or, after a tough workout where there is a lot of metabolic waste from the muscles, having a massage and drinking a lot of water can flush it out of your system. You can get rid of the lactic acid, avoid stiffness and soreness.” Tammy Sciortino, a massage therapist and licensed athletic trainer who works with professional athletes, including the Chicago Fire soccer team, agrees that incorporating massage into your fitness plan is a great idea. “Often women in their 30s want to start a running program – which is a great idea for stress reduction and physical fitness. But it’s also really easy to pull a muscle if you’re just starting out and not used to the strain. Massage helps the muscles stay in good condition.”

All of the therapists agree that having massages simply makes people more aware of their bodies in general. This awareness leads to greater conscientiousness in how we breathe, what we eat, how we sit – how we treat the one body we will ever have. What could be more important than that?

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