Having Trouble Sleeping? How Massage Therapy Can Help

By Joe Neely, Massagetique Correspondent
Woman asleep in front of the fireplace
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Not many things can refresh and rejuvenate your body like a good night’s sleep. Ignoring or trying to endure insomnia is like driving your car every day without ever changing the oil, putting air in your tires, or getting any other preventative maintenance. Sooner or later, you’re going to break down.

Healthy sleep can lead to many benefits, including:

  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Increased blood supply for muscle growth
  • Repaired internal organs and tissues
  • Triggered hormone release, including growth hormones

Healthy sleep and dreams can also strengthen your mind in ways such as:

  • Bringing emotions to the surface for conscious processing
  • Restoring mental energy for daytime performance
  • Developing motor skills while sleeping

According to a Harvard Medical School study, many people “rehearse” motor skills during sleep. Whether you’re trying to type faster, perfect your golf swing, or just get through your day with ease, sleep is an essential part of success in waking life.

Can Massage Help Me Sleep Better?

Researchers have shown massage can promote healthy sleep for:

  • People of all ages, from infants to the elderly
  • Babies with dyssomnia, a sleep condition characterized by an inability to get to sleep or stay asleep
  • Cancer patients—especially breast cancer survivors
  • People recovering from heart surgery
  • Those with pain in their lower backs, hands, etc.
  • People who experience migraines
  • People with restless legs syndrome
  • Health care professionals
  • People with mental health conditions

While getting a massage, many people may drift off to sleep on the massage table. Your massage therapist isn’t likely to be surprised by this behavior; it happens all the time. They know massage encourages their clients’ minds to create delta waves, an essential part of sleep and dreams. Massage also helps to reduce pain, which can be a major cause of insomnia.

Studies show massage therapy can equal better sleep. A team at the University of Miami School of Medicine Touch Research Institute found pregnant women reported improved sleep quality (among other benefits) after a five-week course of massage. With only two 20-minute sessions a week, they felt less anxiety, slept better, and eventually gave birth to babies with fewer postnatal complications.

Another Touch Research Institute study discovered massage had similar sleep-enhancing results for people with lower back pain. They studied a group of people with lower back pain who received two 30-minute massage sessions a week for five weeks. These people felt less pain, anxiety, and depression, along with enhanced flexibility and more restful sleep.

What Is the Science Behind Massage’s Effects on Sleep?

Touch Research Institute researchers studied a group of 26 adults who received 15-minute chair massages twice a week for five weeks (and 24 who only relaxed in massage chairs). In addition to many other measurements, this research team conducted electroencephalogram (EEG) scans of study participants at the beginning and end of the five-week study. Those who received massages had decreased brain activity in the frontal alpha and beta regions. They also had less anxiety, lower levels of stress hormone cortisol, increased math abilities, and less job-related stress.

Beta waves indicate you are alert, thinking, and working. We create alpha waves when we relax and contemplate things. The people in the above study had lower levels of these brain waves, meaning they had a greater proportion of the other waves: theta and delta. You create theta waves when you’re drifting off to sleep or daydreaming. When you sleep, you create delta waves, which are smooth when you’re in a deep sleep and slightly spiked when you’re dreaming.

When you’re ready to go to sleep, your brain begins to shut off thoughts for the day. First, you might stop thinking about your to-do list and stop creating beta waves. Then, you clear your mind of these thoughts by entering a relaxing alpha state. Next, you feel yourself getting drowsy; you only feel the peaceful theta waves of oncoming sleep and forget about everything else. When you finally sink into sleep, nothing is left but your underlying delta waves.

Decreased alpha and beta wave activity accounts for the sleepiness many people feel during massage. With primarily theta and delta wave activity, you’ll likely feel the way you do when napping or hitting the snooze alarm before getting up. Theta and delta states indicate the border between sleep and waking; it’s no wonder those who receive massage report having an easier time getting to sleep at night—they have given their brains practice entering sleep states in their daytime massages.

What If My Mind Is Racing and I Can’t Sleep?

Many people find they can’t stop thinking and go to sleep. If anxiety and worry stop you from shutting down your mind and getting the restorative sleep you need, massage therapy may help. Many researchers have found massage lowers levels of anxiety and depression, allowing people to get the restful sleep their bodies crave.

Massage increases feel-good hormones such as serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine, which can lead to increased feelings of relaxation. It also lowers the body’s levels of cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). Massage therapists manipulate your body to send “everything is okay” signals to your mind, which then enters a peaceful state of relaxation, restoration, and higher immune function. When you relax with a massage, your body gets rid of cortisol, a hormone that can put your body in fight-or-flight mode. When you have decreased levels of cortisol, your body has more room to focus on healing and growth.

How Can I Utilize Massage to Get to Sleep Tonight?

If you have trouble getting to sleep, try to visit a massage therapist on a regular basis. You can relieve a large amount of anxiety and stress by making massage a part of your regular habits. The participants in studies from the Touch Research Institute experienced sleep improvements after just 15-minute chair massages. The benefits are likely to be greater with a typical hour-long massage therapy session.

While you’re waiting for your next massage therapy session, you can create a relaxing sleep environment for yourself with your own self-care massage routine. First, massage your hands using your favorite lotion or oil. Next, gently touch your forehead, temple, nose, and chin. Use the backs of your hands to soothe your neck and throat. Yawn, rub your jaw muscles, and gently tug your ears and earlobes. Stroke the area from the bridge of your nose to the top of your head, and finally rest your hands at your sides, ready to drift off into a relaxing, healthy night of sleep.

References:

  1. Allen, N. (n.d.). 9 Steps to Self Massage for a Good Night’s Sleep. Retrieved from http://www.fabafterfifty.co.uk/2011/07/27/9-steps-to-self-massage-for-a-good-nights-sleep/
  2. Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Hart S., Theakston, H., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (1999). Pregnant women benefit from massage therapy. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology, 20(1), 31-38.
  3. Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Diego, M., & Fraser, M. (2007). Lower back pain and sleep disturbance are reduced following massage therapy. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapy, 11, 141-145. doi:10.1016/j.jbmt.2006.03.001
  4. Field, T., Ironson, G., Scafidi, F., Nawrocki, T., Goncalves, A., Burman…Kuhn C. (1996). Massage therapy reduces anxiety and enhances EEG pattern of alertness and math computations. Internal Journal of Neuroscience, 86(3-4), 197-205.
  5. Kennedy, A. (2012). Massage therapy can help improve sleep. Retrieved from https://www.amtamassage.org/approved_position_statements/Massage-Therapy-Can-Help-Improve-Sleep.html
  6. Lewis, K. (2007). Massage: It’s real medicine. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2007/HEALTH/03/08/healthmag.massage/
  7. Michaeli, D. (2016). Massage and your brain: Massage tilts the brain’s balance away from stress and towards relaxation and healing. Retrieved from https://thedoctorweighsin.com/massage-and-your-brain/
  8. Walker, M., Brakefield, T., Seidman, J., Morgan, A., Hobson, J. A., & Stickgold, R. (2003). Sleep and the time course of motor skill learning. Learning and Memory, 10(4), 275-284. doi:10.1101/lm.58503
  9. What happens when you sleep? (n.d.). National Sleep Foundation. Retrieved from https://sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/what-happens-when-you-sleep
  10. What is the function of the various brain waves? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-the-function-of-t-1997-12-22/

1 thought on “Having Trouble Sleeping? How Massage Therapy Can Help”

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