What Research Says About Massage Therapy

In recent decades, people in the West mostly saw massage as a luxury for those able to afford being pampered. Today, that perception seems to be shifting, and more people consider massage therapy a form of health care. More than half of massage clients try massage therapy for medical reasons, and another quarter of these bodywork recipients choose massage therapy to address their stress and anxiety.

When patients talk with their physicians about bodywork, roughly half of doctors recommend massage therapy. The majority of massage clients choose this treatment to address specific medical concerns like injury rehabilitation, post-surgical recovery, migraine headache management, prenatal care, chronic pain, limited range of motion, and stress.

In some countries, people consider massage therapy a modern medical treatment. In Russia, for example, massage therapists often get a similar level of training and respect as other health care providers. As Americans increasingly approach massage therapy for therapeutic reasons, medical researchers are conducting more, higher-quality massage therapy studies than ever before.

Can Massage Therapy Reduce Lower Back Pain?

A team of MDs, PhDs, and other healthcare experts studied the effects of relaxation and structural massage therapy on more than 400 patients with chronic, non-specific lower back pain. For many people, this common type of lower back pain leads to expensive and uncomfortable disabilities.

The participants in this study received 8-10 weekly massage therapy sessions. In follow-up surveys, researchers found that massage therapy significantly improved patients’ health. In fact, they discovered massage was more effective than standard lower back care in increasing mobility and decreasing discomfort.

Though a small number of participants in this study reported increased pain, the vast majority of massage participants experienced no adverse side-effects from these massage therapy sessions. The researchers who conducted this study recommend relaxation massage due to its broad availability and low cost (as compared to specialized bodywork pain-relief treatments).

Can Massage Therapy Help Regulate Hormone Levels?

A group of biochemists studied the positive effects of massage therapy on patients’ hormone levels. They found massage decreased the stress hormone cortisol by about 30%. When over-expressed, cortisol can contribute to a vast array of afflictions, such as:

  • Poor cardiovascular health
  • Poor endocrine function
  • Depression
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Adverse skin conditions
  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity
  • Cancer
  • Agitation, anxiety, and anger
  • Digestive issues
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Insomnia
  • Memory loss

Researchers also noted a roughly 30% increase in serotonin and dopamine levels in massage therapy recipients. People with low dopamine levels can experience greater levels of depression and stop enjoying their favorite activities. When massage therapy triggers a person’s body to release dopamine and endorphins, their mood elevates, they feel less pain, and they are better able to avoid stress-related diseases. The serotonin released by massage therapy also promotes healthy sleep and digestion.

Can Massage Therapy Provide Relief from Fibromyalgia Symptoms?

People living with fibromyalgia experience increased levels of sensation, often in the form of chronic pain. Simple daily activities and light touches can cause excruciating pain and constant discomfort. Many with fibromyalgia report feeling stiffness, aches and pains, and fatigue throughout the day.

In a number of studies, researchers have found massage therapy (especially myofascial release and connective tissue massage styles) provides many kinds of relief for fibromyalgia patients, including:

  • Reduced anxiety
  • Better sleep quality
  • Less pain medication use
  • Pain reduction
  • Less occurrences of depression
  • Increased quality of life

In one study, researchers found after six months of massage treatments some fibromyalgia patients still enjoyed better sleep, quality, and pain relief than those who didn’t receive massage therapy. Study participants regularly rank massage therapy highly for fibromyalgia pain and symptom relief. A massage therapist who suffers from fibromyalgia recommends light and gentle massage styles, such as hot stone massage, that soothe muscle pain without triggering other symptoms.

Can Massage Therapy Relieve Osteoarthritis Knee Pain?

Recently, organizations like the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) have funded research into the effectiveness of massage therapy. In one such study, a team from the Duke University School of Medicine found massage therapy provided safe and persistent (up to eight weeks) benefits to people suffering from osteoarthritis (OA) in their knee joints.

In this rigorous study, researchers standardized the Swedish massage therapy their therapists provided to study participants. They set protocols for these massage sessions that included the number, kind, and nature of the massage strokes. Of their 125 subjects, 25 received hour-long massage therapy an eight-week period. They gave other participants less frequent massage sessions or only standard (non-massage) methods of care.

In a second study, the Duke team found massage therapy provided greater pain relief and range of motion to OA patients than usual methods of care. They determined the optimal massage dosage for people with OA knee pain: 60 minutes once a week. They found hour-long massages provided more benefits than shorter sessions but were just as effective as longer ones. In addition, these experts recommended weekly hour-long massage treatments because of their convenience, availability, and affordability.

Massage Therapy Soothes Post-Exercise Inflammation

Canadian researchers at Ontario’s McMaster University found massage therapy decreased skeletal muscle inflammation in tissues damaged by overexertion. One expert stated that the benefits of massage therapy for people with musculoskeletal injuries may extend to those who suffer from diseases that cause similar types of inflammation.

The McMaster team discovered massage therapists can affect inflamed tissues at the cellular level. Massage practitioners activated patients’ mechanotransduction pathways, which are the systems cells use to turn movement into biochemical signals. These researchers stated that massage affected two types of kinase (chemicals cells use to communicate with each other and their environment) and triggered mitochondrial biogenesis (the growth and reproduction of cells’ internal “power plants”).

In particular, massage therapy inhibited the NF-κB nuclear factor pathway, which cells use to trigger the inflammation response (especially in exercise-related injuries). Pharmaceutical developers target NF-κB when creating anti-inflammatory medications; in fact, this nuclear factor pathway may even be the key to treating certain autoimmune diseases and cancers. However, massage therapy affected NF-κB in much the same way as modern prescription medications, which could point to even greater (and undiscovered) benefits of therapeutic bodywork.

The Future of Massage Therapy Research Is You!

Private groups like the Massage Therapy Foundation and the U.S. National Institutes of Health continue to fund, support, and promote research into complementary therapies like massage therapy and other styles of bodywork. Across the globe, massage therapy is crossing national and cultural boundaries. Massage colleges in the U.S. teach Russian, Chinese, and Swedish techniques as researchers explore traditional bodywork practices and keep finding amazing results.

No one knows exactly what experts will learn next about the benefits of massage, but one thing is clear: the more scientists learn about massage therapy, the more this “complementary therapy” intersects with mainstream Western medicine. Talk with your doctor about the ways massage and bodywork can complement your current treatments and may even reduce your need for prescription medication!

It’s time for you to do your own, personal research into massage therapy. Everyone’s health situation is different, and you’ll know when you find the perfect fit. With Massagetique, you can explore the wide variety of massage therapy styles available today and find the massage practitioner that’s just right for you.


  1. Castro-Sánchez, M., Matarán-Peñarrocha, G., Granero-Molina, J., Aguilera-Manrique, G., Quesada-Rubio, J., Moreno-Lorenzo, C. (2010). Benefits of massage-myofascial release therapy on pain, anxiety, quality of sleep, depression, and quality of life in patients with fibromyalgia. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine. doi: 10.1155/2011/561753
  2. Cedraschi, C.,Robert, J., Goerg, D., Perrin, E., Fischer, W., and Vischer, T. (1999). Is chronic non-specific low back pain chronic? Definitions of a problem and problems of a definition. British journal of general practice, 49(442), 358–362.
  3. Cherkin, D., Sherman, K., Kahn, J., Wellman, R., Cook, A., Johnson, E., Deyo, R. (2011). A comparison of the effects of 2 types of massage and usual care on chronic low back pain: a randomized, controlled trial. Annals of Internal Medicine, 155(1), 1–9. doi:  10.1059/0003-4819-155-1-201107050-00002
  4. Coila, B. (2015). Effects of serotonin on the body. Retrieved from http://www.livestrong.com/article/154361-effects-of-serotonin-on-the-body
  5. Customer views & use of massage therapy. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.amtamassage.org/research/Consumer-Survey-Fact-Sheets.html
  6. Evans, R. (n.d.). What does the research say about massage therapy? Retrieved from http://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/massage-therapy/what-does-research-say-about-massage-theraphy
  7. Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Diego, M., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2005). Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 115(10), 397-413.
  8. Gaia Staff. (2015) Eastern vs. Western medicine: The breakdown. Retrieved from http://www.gaia.com/article/eastern-vs-western-medicine-breakdown
  9. Jornayvaz, F. & Shulman, G. (2010). Regulation of mitochondrial biogenesis. Essays in Biochemistry. doi: 10.1042/bse0470069
  10. Karin, M., Yamamoto, Y., & Wang, Q. (2004). The IKK NF-κB system: a treasure trove for drug development. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery3, 17-26. doi: 10.1038/nrd1279
  11. Khalsa, K. (2010). Easing the constant pain. Retrieved from https://www.amtamassage.org/articles/3/MTJ/detail/1839
  12. Jones, G. (2010). Russian massage taught in massage schools. http://www.massageschoolsguide.com/massage-techniques/russian-massage-taught-in-massage-schools/
  13. Lawrence, T. (2009). The nuclear factor NF-κB pathway in inflammation. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology, 1(6). doi: 10.1101/cshperspect.a001651
  14. Massage research. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://massagetherapyfoundation.org/massage-research
  15. Massage therapy research roundup. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.amtamassage.org/research/Massage-in-the-News.html
  16. Mechanotransduction. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/subjects/mechanotransduction
  17. Overview: What NCCIH funds. (2015). Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/grants/whatnccihfunds/overviewfunds.htm
  18. Perlman, A., Ali, A., Njike, V., Hom, D., Davidi, A., Gould-Fogerite S., . . . Katz, D. (2012). Massage therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee: A randomized dose-finding trial. Public Library of Science One. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030248.
  19. Wood-Moen, R. (2015). Dopamine and stress response. Retrieved from http://www.livestrong.com/article/366013-dopamine-and-stress-response
  20. Yoon, S., Seger, R. (2006). The extracellular signal-regulated kinase: Multiple substrates regulate diverse cellular functions. Growth Factors, 24(1), 21-44.