Massage affects the body as a whole. To understand how massage
therapy works, some of the physiological effects of massage need to be briefly examined.
Massage is known to increase the circulation of blood and flow of lymph. The direct
mechanical effect of rhythmically applied manual pressure and movement used in massage can
dramatically increase the rate of blood flow. Also, the stimulation of nerve receptors
causes the blood vessels (by reflex action) to dilate, which also facilitates blood flow.
A milky white fluid called lymph carries impurities and waste away from the tissues and
passes through gland-like structures spaced throughout the lymphatic system that act as
filtering valves. The lymph does not circulate as the blood does, so its movement depends
largely on the squeezing effect of muscle contractions. Consequently, inactive people fail
to stimulate lymph flow . On the other hand, the stimulation caused by vigorous activity
can be outstripped by the increased waste produced by that activity. Massage can
dramatically aid the movement of lymph in either case.
For the whole body to be healthy, the sum of its parts--the cells--must be healthy. The
individual cells of the body are dependent on an abundant supply of blood and lymph
because these fluids supply nutrients and oxygen and carry a way wastes and toxins. So, it
is easy to understand why good circulation is so important to our health and why massage
can be so beneficial for the entire body due to its effect on circulation alone.
Massage is also known to:
--Cause changes in the blood. The oxygen capacity of the blood can increase 10-15% after
--Affect muscles throughout the body. Massage can help loosen contracted, shortened
muscles and can stimulate weak, flaccid muscles. This muscle "balancing" can
help posture and promote more efficient movement. Massage does not directly increase
muscle strength, but it can speed recovery from the fatigue that occurs after exercise. In
this way, it can be possible to do more exercise and training, which in the long run
strengthens muscles and improves conditioning. Massage also provides a gentle stretching
action to both the muscles and connective tissues that surround and support the muscles
and many other parts of the body, which helps keep these tissues elastic.
--Increase the body's secretions and excretions. There is a proven increase in the
production of gastric juices, saliva, and urine. There is also increased excretion of
nitrogen, inorganic phosphorus, and sodium chloride (salt). This suggests that the
metabolic rate (the utilization of absorbed material by the body's cells) increases.
--Affect the nervous system. Massage balances the nervous system by soothing or
stimulating it, depending on which effect is needed by the individual at the time of the
--Enhance skin condition. Massage directly improves the function of the sebaceous (oil)
and sweat glands which keep the skin lubricated, clean, cooled. Tough, inflexible skin can
become softer and more supple.
--Affect internal organs. By indirectly or directly stimulating nerves that supply
internal organs, blood vessels of these organs dilate and allow greater blood supply to
Knowing about the physiological effects of massage makes it possible to better understand
the health and fitness benefits of massage. What takes place under a massage therapist's
hands has profound importance for those interested in health and fitness in "tuning
up" their bodies. In every sport or form of exercise, massage can help. By helping to
reduce physiological fatigue and aid recovery from the exertion of working out or playing,
massage enables training better, with longer, more effective workouts, thus facilitating
better performance and preventing injury.
The people of ancient Mediterranean civilizations knew this. After bathing and exercise,
they included a full body massage. The ancients understood that education involves equal
development of mind and body. The modern public s interest in physical fitness, holistic
health, wellness and human potential represents a bid to revive a time-honored philosophy.
For most people embarking on a fitness program, often the spirit is willing but the flesh
is not. When regular exercise is begun almost every part of the body changes. Of interest
to massage therapists is the way blood vessels become more intricate in order to meet the
body s demand for more oxygen, to supply more nutrients, to permit more elimination. This
takes time. While the muscles are getting into shape, they have trouble getting enough
oxygen and nutrients, and wastes back up and stagnate. Unfortunately, many exercise
programs regard aches and pains as the inevitable price to be paid. This is simply not
true because massage can be used as the Greeks and Romans used it--to increase endurance,
control fatigue, and feel better as part of a regular health program.
Massage acts to disperse the accumulated by-products of muscle action that irritate
muscles and nerve endings. Lactic and carbonic acids build up in muscle tissue shortly
after exercise begins. These acids are waste products that contribute to causation of the
pain and occasional cramping that exercisers, athletes, dancers, etc. suffer during and/or
after workouts or performing. These acids are formed when the glycogen stored in the liver
and muscles is burned to produce the energy expended during exercise. The acids must
eventually be reconverted to glycogen and stored again, or drained out via the lymph and
circulatory systems. Pain and fatigue persists until this process of reconverting or
excreting is completed. Massage can help eliminate the irritation caused by these wastes,
thus increasing muscle recovery rates. When massage has been substituted for rest, an
increase from 20-75%, even 100% muscle recovery has been recorded. For example, this is
why boxers are massaged rather than rested between rounds.
Joints are critical to exercise because joints are moved by the muscles to produce
movement. All joints are complicated, and their parts have a way of settling and
stiffening when not used. A sluggish, numbed feeling in the joints discourages exercise. A
massage therapist counteracts this by using massage strokes and passive movement to
release the muscle tension and free the connective tissue found around the joints that can
bind the joints.
Massage also aids recovery from soft tissue injuries such as sprains and strains. This is
possible because the growth and repair of tissue are accelerated by efficient circulation
in the injured areas and appropriate stimulation of the healing tissues. Many soft tissue
injuries are not serious enough to cause one to visit a doctor or hospital for treatment,
or are only treated with some first-aid, but still cause some discomfort and disability.
Massage therapy can often help speed and improve recovery and reduce discomfort from such
mishaps. In this way, massage helps bridge the gap between common neglect of injury and
major medical intervention.
Increased health awareness has also increased nutrition awareness. The most carefully
planned diet is partly wasted if blood vessels are not developed and open so that
nutrition can reach the cells. Massage can aid internal nutrition rates by improving
The relationship of stress and illness is of interest to anyone maintaining their health.
We all have stress in our daily lives relating to work, family, environment, society.
Mental tensions, frustrations, and insecurity are among the most damaging. Stress causes
the release of hormones that create vasoconstriction--vessel shrinking--and reduced
circulation. Affected by stress, the heart works harder, breathing becomes rapid and
shallow, and digestion slows. Nearly every body process is degraded. Psychosomatic studies
show how stress factors can cause migraines, hypertension, depression, some peptic ulcers,
etc. Researchers have estimated that 80% of disease is stress related. Soothing and
relaxing massage therapy can help by counteracting stress effects.
Massage has a definite psychological effect. Since massage animates the tactile sense, the
body's primary sense, it brings people into the here and now and away from tension
generated by constant preoccupation with problems. Also, loosening of muscle tension or
armoring--the physical counterpart to how we defend and protect ourselves from
psychological pain--can lead to freeing of repressed emotions.
Users of massage therapy as a healing tool quickly realize that they have found a form of
drugless therapy. Headaches, insomnia, digestive disorders including constipation and
spastic colon, arthritis, asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, sinusitis, and minor aches and
pains are some of the problems that can respond to massage therapy. Massage can have an
excellent effect on nervous people who have been dependent on their pharmacy for rest and
Simply stated, the foundation stone of the therapeutic effect of massage is what
Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine and an advocate of massage, defined as vis
medicatrix naturae, or the body's natural recuperative powers, the life force. Massage
therapy essentially promotes health by boosting the body's own processes.
While this article has focused on how massage can help tune the body, and on its concrete
scientific effects, it should also be mentioned that massage can be seen as a healing art
as well as a science. The theories of therapeutic massage are scientific in character, but
the actual application of these theories is an art, for it involves the healing sense,
sensitivity of touch, insight, and intuition. It is a unique way of communicating without
words, sharing energy, enjoying pleasurable relaxation, and experiencing peace of mind.
Massage is often attributed to have ethereal spiritual effects akin to those of
The past ten years or so have seen a proliferation of different terms, titles, and systems
of massage such as: Therapeutic, Holistic, Swedish, Sports, Neuromuscular, Bodywork,
Oriental, Shiatsu, Acupressure, Esalen, Reichian, Polarity, Reflexology, etc. For the sake
of clarity, the term massage or massage therapy as used in this article refers to the
scientific manipulation of the soft tissues. The thing to keep in mind is that every
healing art that employs massage therapy should include some form of kneading, pressing,
or stroking with the use of pressure and movement, no matter how slight the touch or how
often it is used.
The best ways to find a massage therapist is to get a referral from a friend who gets
massage therapy, a health professional who is knowledgeable about forms of complementary
and alternative health care such as massage therapy, or contact the American Massage
Therapy Association for names of qualified massage therapists in your area. You can call
the AMTA at 847 864 0123, write to 820 Davis Street, Suite 100, Evanston, IL 60201, send
email to email@example.com, or
check out the AMTA website at http://www.amtamassage.org.
Since there are many styles of massage, you may want to shop around to find someone who
practices the style of massage most suited to your needs. You should be able to find a
massage therapist who is right for you, though you may or may not need to try a few
massage therapists to do so.
Whenever interviewing a massage therapist you should always feel comfortable asking if
they have graduated from a school that is accredited or approved by a credible accrediting
agency such as the Commission for Massage Training Accreditation/Approval (COMTAA), are
licensed if licensing is required in your area (as of 9/97, 25 states and D.C. regulate
massage therapists), are nationally certified by the National Certification Board for
Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (this is the only professional certification program that
has been recognized by an independent, outside agency), belong to a credible professional
association such as the AMTA, and also amount of experience and styles of massage used.
In terms of what to expect during a massage therapy session, they generally are an hour in
length. Clients are usually asked to remove as much clothing as one is comfortable with
and rest on a padded massage table. To respect personal privacy and provide adequate
warmth, the client is covered or draped with a sheet or towel so that only the part of the
body being worked on is exposed at any given time.
Whether or not you would expect to talk during a session depends on your need at the time.
Some clients need to talk. Some need silence. Massage therapists will usually try to
accommodate what the client needs. However, sometimes talking detracts from entering a
state of relaxation or experiencing the physical or nonverbal dimensions of the massage.
In any case, feel comfortable giving feedback about your needs and what you like or do not
like during the session. Good communication enhances the massage session.
The massage therapist will likely use a high quality oil or lotion, but if you have an
allergic response you should let the massage therapist know. Some massage therapists offer
to play music during a session, others may feel it is distracting. It is best not to have
eaten just before a session. Your massage therapist can answer many other questions you
may have. If for any reason you must miss a massage appointment, your massage therapist
will surely appreciate being notified as soon as possible.
To enjoy the benefits of massage which have been discussed, it is best to receive a
therapeutic massage from a practitioner who has blended a thorough knowledge of anatomy,
physiology, kinesiology, and massage technique with a sensitive, powerful touch and the
healing sense. To your health!
Elliot Greene, M.A., NCTMB, served from 1990-1994 as national president of the American
Massage Therapy Association. He has over 25 years experience as a massage therapist and
workshop leader instructor, is Nationally Certified in Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork.
He as a major contributor for the NIH publication Alternative Medicine: Expanding
Medical Horizons, has been an expert advisor on massage therapy for publications by
Time-Life Books, Rodale Press, Warner Books, Consumer Reports and other publishers, and is
on the Practitioners Advisory Panel of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary
Medicine. He has a private practice in Silver Spring, MD, and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
ęCopyright 1997 by Elliot Greene. All rights reserved. This article may not be
reproduced by any means without the prior written permission of the author.