The Basics: Massage seems more like a tension-taming splurge than a serious alternative treatment, but the therapy is highly effective at releasing pain and rehabilitating your body after an injury, explains Susan G. Salvo, massage therapist and author of several books on massage including “Massage Therapy: Principles and Practice.”
Massage therapy has had an important place in healing across cultures for thousands of years. “The history of massage really is the history of medicine,” says Salvo. “Even Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, was an advocate of massage.”
The therapy can take many different forms—from deep tissue and Swedish massage to sports massage and lymphatic drainage massage—using combinations of rubbing and pressing to manipulate muscles and soft tissue.
To experience prolonged therapeutic benefits of stress reduction from massage, Salvo recommends practicing self-care, including relaxation measures such as deep breathing, yoga and meditation, in the weeks following a massage, as well as increasing fluid intake to flush out toxins released during the treatment.
If you receive massages for pain relief, Salvo advises regular stretching, self-massage and staying physically active to extend the pain-fighting benefits. “With self care, you can get a massage and [the benefits] can last a month or longer if you are committed to taking care of yourself in between those sessions,” she says. Schedule your massage at the end of a workday or at a time when it can be followed by relaxation, adds Salvo. “Don’t get a massage and go back to work or work out at the gym.”
Scientific Support: Research shows that massage is an effective therapy when it comes to treating pain. A 2000 study found that 63 percent of participants with lower back pain who received comprehensive massage therapy, including soft-tissue manipulation, remedial exercise and posture education, as treatment reported no pain after one month. And a 2002 study showed that four weeks of neck and shoulder massage significantly reduced the occurrence of headaches for chronic sufferers.
Other studies have shed light on how massage affects the body. A 2010 study at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles demonstrated that a 45-minute Swedish massage produced measurable biological effects, including a decrease in a hormone that regulates blood pressure and water retention and an increase in circulating lymphocytes, which may indicate an immune boost.
Complement to Western Medicine: Doctor-referred massage may be covered by insurance plans, though Medicare does not cover massage therapy. “This is changing as we are getting more documented research on massage,” says Salvo. Currently 43 states and the District of Columbia license massage therapists. You can locate a licensed massage therapist through the American Massage Therapy Association. It’s important to find one with whom you are comfortable and have a good rapport, notes Salvo, so ask for referrals from family and friends to find the right professional.
What it’s Best For: Massage sessions should focus on relieving both pain and stress, according to Salvo. Massage therapy is especially effective at easing pain, muscle tension, headaches, muscle spasms, soreness caused by injury or stress, and swelling.
The Beauty Connection: Try a massage to experience healing touch on the body and the beautifying effects that follow. “We simply feel more beautiful when we’re pain-free and relaxed,” explains Salvo. “There is a mind-body connection. You can’t just invest in outward beauty when you feel unwell on the inside, whether from pain or stress.”