Massages can be a very relaxing experience and provide many benefits for physical and mental health. Massage therapy can manage pain and certain health conditions or simply enhance wellness. (19) Continue reading to learn more about massage therapy, its benefits, and why this complementary therapy is used by integrative practitioners.
What is massage therapy?
Massage therapy is a physical medical treatment that is performed by a regulated professional such as a massage therapist or integrative medicine practitioner. It involves manipulating the body’s muscles using the hands, knuckles, forearms, and elbows. Some forms of massage also incorporate the use of tools. (19)
There are different forms of therapeutic massage. The type of massage provided depends on your individual needs and physical condition. (16) Different forms of massage therapy include:
- Connective tissue massage: A connective tissue massage involves massaging the tissues that connect the organs, muscles, and nerves. The goal of this form of massage is to manage illness and pain by positively influencing the organs in the body.
- Deep tissue massage: In deep tissue massage, strong pressure is used to address deeper layers of muscles and tendons.
- Swedish massage: Swedish massage encompasses stroking, kneading, rubbing, tapping, and vibrating. The goal of this approach is to release tension in specific areas in order to relieve pain.
- Trigger point massage: A trigger point massage involves applying pressure to oversensitive, tense muscle fibers called “ trigger points” to relax the muscle. (10)
Benefits of massage therapy
Numerous research studies have examined the benefits of massage therapy for various conditions. Research suggests that massage treatments may provide psychological benefits and short-term relief for several different kinds of pain and therefore, may be beneficial in patient care. (17)
People with cancer may experience pain, anxiety, and distress. (27) As a part of cancer care, massage therapy may help to relieve pain, relieve stress, reduce fatigue, manage anxiety, and improve wellbeing and quality of life. (18)
One 2016 review looked at 19 studies, including 1,274 participants. Evidence from these studies suggests that massage with or without aromatherapy may help relieve anxiety and pain in cancer patients. However, further research was needed as the studies were of low quality and involved small sample sizes. (27)
Another systematic review and meta-analysis conducted in 2016 found that those who received regular massage therapy treatments experienced less pain, anxiety, and fatigue than those who did not receive any treatments. (2)
Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes chronic pain, sleep problems, fatigue, and often emotional and mental distress. Fibromyalgia affects about four million U.S. adults, accounting for approximately 2% of the adult population. (4) There is some evidence that suggests that massage therapy may be helpful for those who have fibromyalgia.
A systematic review and meta-analysis conducted in 2014 found that at least five weeks of massage treatment can reduce pain, anxiety, and depression in people with fibromyalgia. (13) According to a 2015 systematic review and meta-analysis comparing the effects of different kinds of massage therapy for those with fibromyalgia, improvements in quality of life may be experienced with almost all styles of massage, except for Swedish massage. (29)
3. Headaches and migraines
According to the American Migraine Foundation, more than 36 million Americans experience migraines, most experiencing chronic or frequent migraines. (14) Migraines are painful, often debilitating, and are sometimes associated with other symptoms such as nausea and weakness. (28)
A 2011 systematic review of two studies concluded that massage therapy might be as effective for the prevention of migraines as propranolol and topiramate, common medications used to manage cases of migraine headaches. (6) Furthermore, a 2016 randomized controlled trial compared two forms of massage—lymphatic drainage and traditional massage—once a week for eight weeks in individuals who experience migraines. Compared to the control group, those who received either form of massage experienced a reduced frequency of migraines after eight weeks. (8)
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the immune system. HIV can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) if left untreated. (3) Having HIV/AIDS can significantly impact a person’s quality of life as patients with HIV may face stigma associated with the condition. People with HIV are also likely to suffer from physical and psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, confusion, fatigue, insomnia, and pain. (1)
Some studies suggest that massage therapy may benefit anxiety, depression, and quality of life in people with HIV/AIDS. (18) This was seen in a 2010 systematic review, which concluded that massage therapy might help improve the quality of life for people with HIV and AIDS. (9) Additionally, randomized control trials conducted in 2013 and 2017 suggested that massage may help with symptoms of depression (23) and anxiety, respectively, in those with HIV. (19)(25)
5. Low back pain
In 2016, The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality examined 20 studies that compared massage to different types of pharmacological and nonpharmacological treatments for lower back pain. The review found that massage may be as effective as other standard treatments, such as muscle relaxants and pain medications for chronic low back pain. However, the authors concluded that further research, particularly comparing the various types of massage, was required. (21)
According to The American College of Physicians, massage therapy is also suitable for treating acute or subacute lower back pain. (24) Similarly, a 2015 review found that massage may provide short-term relief from acute, sub-acute, and chronic back pain. (7)
6. Neck and shoulder pain
There is some evidence to suggest that massage therapy may provide short-term benefits for neck or shoulder pain. (18) Two systematic reviews and meta-analyses were conducted in 2013 and 2016, examining the use of massage for neck pain. Both reviews found that massage therapy was more helpful for neck and shoulder pain than inactive placebo therapies. (12)(15)
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis. It usually affects the joints in the hands, hips, and knees. With OA, the cartilage within a joint breaks down, causing the connected bone to change. These changes usually develop slowly and worsen over time, causing pain, stiffness, and swelling. It may lead to reduced function, disability, and difficulty with daily tasks or work for some people. (5) Multiple studies have examined massage therapy for osteoarthritis. The results suggest that massage may have short-term benefits in relieving pain and improving physical function. (18)(20)(22)(26)
Risks of massage therapy
Massage therapy is generally considered safe; however, there have been a few rare incidents in which severe side effects have occurred, including blood clots, nerve injury, and bone fracture. These side effects are usually caused by more vigorous forms of massage or in those who may be at an increased risk of injury. (18) Speak to your practitioner to ensure massage therapy is safe and effective for your particular needs and situation.
The bottom line
Massage therapy is a treatment that involves manipulating the soft tissues of the body. Massage therapy can manage pain in certain health conditions and provide psychological benefits by easing anxiety, stress, and depression. Some rare side effects can occur from vigorous or rough treatments. Speak to your integrative practitioner to determine if massage therapy is safe and effective for your individual needs.
- Basavaraj, K. H., Navya, M. A., & Rashmi, R. (2010). Quality of life in HIV/AIDS. Indian Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases and AIDS, 31(2), 75–80.
- Boyd, C., Crawford, C., Paat, C. F., Price, A., Xenakis, L., & Zhang, W. (2016). The impact of massage therapy on function in pain populations—a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials: part II, cancer pain populations. Pain Medicine, 17(8), 1553–1568.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About HIV/AIDS | HIV Basics | HIV/AIDS |. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/whatishiv.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fibromyalgia. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/fibromyalgia.htm#:%7E:text=Fibromyalgia%20
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Osteoarthritis (OA) | Arthritis |. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/osteoarthritis.htm
- Chaibi, A., Tuchin, P. J., & Russell, M. B. (2011). Manual therapies for migraine: a systematic review. The Journal of Headache and Pain, 12(2), 127–133.
- Furlan, A. D., Giraldo, M., Baskwill, A., Irvin, E., & Imamura, M. (2015). Massage for low-back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2015(9).
- Happe, S., Peikert, A., Siegert, R., & Evers, S. (2016). The efficacy of lymphatic drainage and traditional massage in the prophylaxis of migraine: a randomized, controlled parallel group study. Neurological Sciences, 37(10), 1627–1632.
- Hillier, S. L., Louw, Q., Morris, L., Uwimana, J., & Statham, S. (2010). Massage therapy for people with HIV/AIDS. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
- InformedHealth.org (Internet). Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. What kinds of massage are there? 2010 Mar 24 (Updated 2014 Jan 2). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279473/
- International Association for the Study of Pain. (2021, October 12). The global burden of low back pain. International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP). https://www.iasp-pain.org/resources/fact-sheets/the-global-burden-of-low-back-pain/#:%7E:text=Low%20 back%20pain%20is%20a%20 common%20global%20problem&text=The%20point%20prevalence%20of%20low,577.0%20million%20people%20%5B2%5D.
- Kong, L. J., Zhan, H. S., Cheng, Y. W., Yuan, W. A., Chen, B., & Fang, M. (2013). Massage therapy for neck and shoulder pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013, 1–10.
- Li, Y. H., Wang, F. Y., Feng, C. Q., Yang, X. F., & Sun, Y. H. (2014). Massage therapy for fibromyalgia: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. PLoS ONE, 9(2), e89304.
- Logan, A. (2015, January 1). Migraine – where we are and where we are going. American Migraine Foundation. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/migraine-where-we-are-and-where-we-are-going/
- Nahin, R. L., Boineau, R., Khalsa, P. S., Stussman, B. J., & Weber, W. J. (2016). Evidence-based evaluation of complementary health approaches for pain management in the United States. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 91(9), 1292–1306.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. 6 Things to know about massage therapy for health purposes. NCCIH. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/tips/things-to-know-about-massage-therapy-for-health-purposes
- National Institutes of Health. massage therapy for health. NCCIH. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/providers/digest/massage-therapy-for-health
- National Institutes of Health. Massage Therapy for Health : What the Science Says. NCCIH. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/providers/digest/massage-therapy-for-health-science
- National Institutes of health. Massage therapy: what you need to Know. NCCIH. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/massage-therapy-what-you-need-to-know
- Nelson, N. L., & Churilla, J. R. (2017). Massage therapy for pain and function in patients with arthritis. American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, 96(9), 665–672.
- Pacific Northwest Evidence-based Practice Center Portland. (2016, February). Noninvasive treatments for low back pain | Effective Health Care (EHC) Program. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. https://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/products/back-pain-treatment/research
- Perlman, A. I. (2006). Massage therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee. Archives of Internal Medicine, 166(22), 2533.
- Poland, R. E., Gertsik, L., Favreau, J. T., Smith, S. I., Mirocha, J. M., Rao, U., & Daar, E. S. (2013). Open-label, randomized, parallel-group controlled clinical trial of massage for treatment of depression in HIV-infected subjects. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 19(4), 334–340.
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- Reychler, G., Caty, G., Arcq, A., Lebrun, L., Belkhir, L., Yombi, J. C., & Marot, J. C. (2017). Effects of massage therapy on anxiety, depression, hyperventilation and quality of life in HIV infected patients: A randomized controlled trial. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 32, 109–114.
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- Shin, E. S., Seo, K. H., & Lee, S. H. (2017). Aromatherapy and massage for symptom relief in people with cancer. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
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- Yuan, S. L. K., Matsutani, L. A., & Marques, A. P. (2015). Effectiveness of different styles of massage therapy in fibromyalgia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Manual Therapy, 20(2), 257–264.