Many people seek massage therapy for medical reasons. According to the American Massage Therapy Association’s 2014 and 2015 consumer surveys, 52% of people got massages for one of the following reasons:
- To relieve and manage pain
- To address spasms, soreness, and stiffness
- To recover and rehabilitate from injuries
- To stay fit and increase health and wellness
- To ease discomfort during pregnancy
In 2015, 16% of American adults discussed massage therapy with their doctors and other health care providers, and about 69% of the time, their physicians and health care workers strongly recommended massage therapy and gave them a referral. Physicians were the most likely health care providers to recommend massage, but chiropractors, physical therapists, and mental health professionals also encouraged their patients to seek a massage therapist.
How Does Massage Provide Pain Relief After Injuries?
As the body of relevant research grows, more doctors recommend massage therapy to people in pain. Researchers from one study observed a group of young men with exercise-related injuries to their skeletal muscles. They knew massage therapy was linked to pain relief and wanted to uncover the mechanisms of this effect.
The researchers found massage therapy reduced stress on a cellular level, decreased inflammation, and increased mitochondrial biogenesis in these study participants. Mitochondria exist within cells, provide energy and respiration, and contribute to the healing of cellular injuries.
According to the study, massage reduced the pain of injuries in much the same way as anti-inflammatory drugs do. Massage therapy also has fewer potential side effects than prescription painkillers.
Can Massage Therapy Relieve Your Chronic Pain?
Lower back pain – According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers have found promising evidence that massage therapy can benefit people with lower back pain. Researchers at Canada’s Institute for Work and Health found acupressure was more effective for lower back pain than Swedish massage. Thai massage produced similar results to Swedish massage. The researchers recommended massage therapy in conjunction with exercises and relevant education.
Headaches – In a study of people who experience chronic tension headaches, researchers found massage therapy reduced the frequency and duration of these headaches. Even short 30-minute sessions could alleviate certain headaches, and the participants experienced significant reductions in headache frequency after only the first week of this eight-week study.
Arthritis knee pain – In a study of people who had knee pain from arthritis, researchers found massage therapy provided pain relief benefits for at least eight weeks after treatment. In a follow-up study, they determined weekly 60-minute massage sessions were the most effective, given their convenience, cost, and consistency.
Neck pain – In a study of 228 people living with chronic neck pain, a team of doctors found 60-minute massage sessions were more effective than 30-minute ones. They urged physicians to relate this information to their patients when recommending massage for neck pain.
Fibromyalgia – A researcher in Sweden found people with fibromyalgia who received massage therapy felt less pain up to six months after treatment. In this study of 48 patients, the researcher found 15 massage therapy treatments over a 10-week period relieved 37% of pain, relieved feelings of depression, and decreased study participants’ need for painkillers.
Cancer pain – Cancer patients have long turned to massage therapy for relief from pain related to cancer and cancer treatments. One research group found massage therapy is effective for short-term treatment of anxiety and depression in cancer patients. In their review of many previous studies, they highlighted one in which cancer patients experienced a 50% reduction in symptoms after receiving massage therapy.
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- Chronic pain and CAM: At a glance. (2011). Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/sites/nccam.nih.gov/files/D456_05-14-2012.pdf
- Crane, J., Ogborn, D., Cupido, C., Melov, S., Hubbard, A., Bourgeois, J., Tarnopolsky, M. (2012). Massage therapy attenuates inflammatory signaling after exercise-induced muscle damage. Science Translational Medicine, 4(119), 119. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3002882
- Cutler, N. (2013). Massage therapy helps common side effect of painkillers. Retrieved from http://www.integrativehealthcare.org/mt/archives/2013/12/massage-therapy-helps-common-side-effect-of-painkillers.html
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- Mitochondrial Disease Clinic. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/departments-centers/clinical-genomics/overview/specialty-groups/mitochondrial-disease-clinic
- Need an excuse to book a massage? Research shows it reduces inflammation and promotes growth of new mitochondria following strenuous exercise. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.buckinstitute.org/buck-news/need-excuse-book-massage-research-shows-it-reduces-inflammation-and-promotes-growth-new-mi
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- Sherman, K., Cook, A., Wellman, R., Hawkes, R., Kahn, J., Deyo, R., & Cherkin, D. (2014). Five-week outcomes from a dosing trial of therapeutic massage for chronic neck pain. Annals of Family Medicine, 12(2), 112-120. doi:10.1370/afm.1602