Using massage therapy for healing is one of the oldest health practices, references to massage appear in writings from ancient China, Japan, India, Egypt, and Rome. In the United States, massage therapy is often considered part of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), although it does have conventional applications. Massage is used for a variety of health-related purposes, including to relieve pain, rehabilitate injuries, reduce stress, increase relaxation, address anxiety and depression, and aid in the improvement of general wellness.
Numerous theories try to explain how massage therapy may affect the body. The “gate control theory” suggests that massage may provide stimulation that helps block pain signals sent to the brain. Other theories suggest that massage may stimulate the release of chemicals in the body, like serotonin or endorphins, or cause beneficial mechanical changes in the body. It is generally accepted that massage affects the integumentary system by stimulating sensory receptors in the skin, increasing superficial circulation, removing dead skin, all while increasing oil excretion from the sebaceous glands. Massage is also thought to enhance immune system functioning by increasing lymphatic flow and decreasing stress.
In 2008, a review of 13 clinical trials found evidence that massage may be helpful in treating chronic low-back pain. In 2007, the American Pain Society along with the the American College of Physicians issued clinical practice guidelines which recommend physicians consider using alternative therapies when patients with chronic low-back pain have not responded to conventional treatment, including massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, progressive relaxation, and yoga.
A recent study, funded by NCCAM and published in the journal PLoS One, found that a 60-minute Swedish massage, delivered once a week for pain due to osteoarthritis of the knee was both optimal and practical. The researchers defined an optimal, practical dose as producing the greatest ratio of desired effect compared to costs in time, labor, and convenience. Osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease of the joints, is the most common type of arthritis, affecting approximately 27 million Americans.
Despite massage therapy having few serious risks, it should be performed by a properly trained therapist and appropriate precautions must be followed. The National Center for Complimentary & Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) cautions that vigorous massage should be avoided by people who have bleeding disorders or low blood platelet counts, and by people taking blood-thinning medications such as warfarin. It is important to remember that massage should not be done where there is blood clots, fractures, open or healing wounds, skin infections, or weakened bones, such as one may find when ill from osteoporosis or cancer, or in an area that has undergone recent surgery. While massage appears to be generally safe for cancer patients, consult the oncologist for approval before having a massage that may involve deep or intense pressure. Any direct pressure over a tumor usually is discouraged. Cancer patients should discuss the use of massage therapy and any concerns about it with their oncologist. Pregnant women should also consult their health care provider or Ob-Gyn before using massage therapy. The number of serious injuries reported with massage therapy is very small. Side effects may include temporary pain or discomfort, bruising, swelling, and a sensitivity or allergy to massage oils.