The Health Benefits of Massage
By Alan Jordan, LMT, NCTMB
In your touch is the gift of life and without it we die. For an infant this is true and for adults it can be psychologically and literally true. Within us live many personalities, and if they are not touched they die and take their body with them.
Bernie Siegel, MD
In the thirteenth century, Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II removed a group of infants from their families and put them in the care of nurses who were instructed to attend only to the infants’ most basic needs—the infants could be fed and bathed but not held, hugged or spoken to. It was Fredrick’s intent to see what language the babies would speak if they were raised generically, without benefit of touch or adult verbal stimulation. Unfortunately, Fredrick did not find his answer. All of the infants died before they were old enough to speak.
Our Innate Need for Touch
New England surgeon and noted author Bernie Siegel writes, “in your touch is the gift of life and without it we die. For an infant this is true and for adults it can be psychologically and literally true. Within us live many personalities, and if they are not touched they die and take their body with them.”
In the 1950’s Dr. Rene Spitz became concerned about the unusually high infant mortality rate in several United States orphanages. He conducted an extensive study and discovered that when infants are deprived of physical and emotional support of the mother, or another primary caretaker, they develop severe developmental disorders, including weight loss, the inability to walk, eat with a spoon, use the toilet and talk. The most critical cases result in death. His conclusion, based on the observation of thousands of babies in various settings, was that babies left alone tend to become ill or die, while babies who are touched flourish.
Massage therapist Dawn Nelson is the founder of an organization named “Compassionate Touch for Those in Later Stages.” She has worked with the elderly and dying for almost twenty years. According to Nelson, “Touch deprivation is a largely ignored yet major cause of depression among the elderly in our society.” Concerning the need for touch throughout life, developmental psychologist Sharon Heller writes regarding our five senses, “Nor does touch wane as we age, as do vision, taste, smell and hearing. Rather it continues to communicate caring, pleasure, love—even healing—all our lives.”
Physiologically, human beings are made to touch and to be touched. Touch has been called the “mother of all senses.” According to Zach Thomas, a Presbyterian minister who is also a massage therapist, this metaphor reminds us that the anatomical foundation of our communal nature is our touchy skin.”
In human embryos, the sense of touch develops before the other senses, appearing at approximately six weeks. Neural cells responding to forms of touch are the basis from which the other senses emerge.
From the cradle to the grave, human beings have an innate need to be touched. Perhaps the greatest benefit of touch lies in its ability to connect people to each other, individually, and to humankind. According to Heller, touch has the “power to mellow us when agitated, reconnect us when isolated, and to renew our spirit.”
Massage Therapy-Educated Touch
One of the most powerful forms of touch is massage—a preventative and rehabilitative therapy that has been used in one form or another as far back as human memory and recorded history allow. When we have a sore muscle or if we bump an elbow, our natural instinct is to rub the affected body part. The first written words about massage date back more than 4,000 years to China. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates, renowned as the father of modern medicine wrote, the physician must be experienced in many things, but most assuredly in rubbing.” Cave paintings, dating back to 15,000 years ago depict the therapeutic use of hands, and there are numerous references to the “laying-on of hands” in the Bible. In the east, massage was considered a necessity, and Roman emperor Julius Caesar enjoyed daily massages for his neuralgia. In fact, therapeutic massage was known as the “King’s Touch” in early France and England.
Modern massage therapy is the use of educated touch. The official definition of massage by the American Massage Therapy Association states, “Massage therapy is a profession in which the practitioner applies manual therapies and may apply adjunctive therapies, with the intention of positively affecting the health and well-being of the client.”
Currently, massage is experiencing a tremendous renaissance throughout the Western world. John Naisbitt, in his book, Megatrends, wrote to the effect that the more we become a high-tech society, the more we will become a high-touch society. In other words, as we become more technologically advanced, our needs for preventative care, nurturing, and healing touch will increase. Touch transcends culture, race, and even species—hand milked cows give more and richer milk than those milked by machines!
Massage Therapy Research
Research conducted at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine illustrates the necessary role for stimulating touch on infants and children. In a lab study of premature infants from 1984 to 1986, Institute Director Dr. Tiffany Field concluded that the premature infants who received massage in fifteen minute sessions, three times a day, gained forty-seven percent more weight than unmassaged babies, were awake and active a greater percentage of the time, and performed better on tests of habituation, orientation, motor activity and regulation of state behavior. On average, the massaged infants spent six days less in the hospital, saving hospital charges of approximately three thousand dollars per infant. One year later, a follow up study showed the massaged infants still maintained a weight advantage over the unmassaged group and performed better on infant developmental tests. Subsequent studies in the Philippines and in Israel have duplicated Fields’ results.
Exciting new research documents that massage therapy helps to relieve stress and anxiety, helps ourbody to fight back against infection, increases the nourishing supply of oxygen and nutrients to our tissues and improves energy and mental clarity.
The Touch research Institute (TRI) has now completed 83 studies concerning the effects of massage therapy for various medical conditions among various age groups. Just a few of the important findings from those studies are that massage therapy results in diminished pain for people who suffer from musculoskeletal problems, as well as painful pathologies such as fibromyalgia. Patients with decreased autoimmune functions experience benefits from massage such as increased pulmonary function in asthma and decreased glucose in diabetes. Studies at TRI document that massage enhances immune function by increasing natural killer cells in HIV and cancer patients. Other studies have documented enhanced alertness and mental performance on a variety of skills including math test performance.
One of the important documented benefits of massage is that massage relieves stress. It is estimated that stress-related disorders make up between eighty to ninety percent of the ailments that bring people to family practice physicians. In the United States, experts at the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have concluded that stress is linked to physical and mental health. Among the findings are: job burnout—experienced by 25 percent to 40 percent of U.S. workers—is blamed on stress; stress related depression is predicted to be the leading cause of occupational disease for the twenty-first century and; $300 billion, or $7,500 per employee, is spent annually in the U.S. on stress related workers compensation claims, reduced productivity, absenteeism, health insurance and direct medical expenses.
Joan Borysenko, Ph.D, co-founder and former Director of the Mind/Body Clinic at the New England Deaconess Hospital at Harvard University states, “I believe massage therapy is absolutely key in the healing process not only because it relieves stress, it is obviously foundational in the healing process any time and anywhere. “
Massage therapy is also used as important component of mental and emotional health. Psychologists and other mental health workers are partnering with massage therapists in the treatment of their patients.
In their book Embodying Healing: Integrating Bodywork and Psychotherapy in Recovery from Childhood Sexual Abuse, authors Robert Timms and Patrick Connors make the case that a psychotherapist and massage therapist, working as a team, will provide greater benefits to the patient than a single therapist approach. The benefits of integrating massage therapy with psychotherapy include increased awareness of the self; satisfying the patients need for healthy, nurturing touch; helping the patient to define boundaries; improving the patient’s self-image and accessing early trauma that may be “trapped” in the body through touch.
On a mental and emotional level, massage:
Massage Therapy for Seniors
According to Phyllis K. Davis, Ph.D., a Licensed Professional Counselor and author, “Touch is not just a pleasant stimulus but also a biological necessity.” It has been well documented that infants and children need nurturing touch in order to thrive, but the need for touch continues throughout life. Senior citizens have much to gain from massage therapy.
Professional massage provides a safe and secure venue for having touch needs met. According to The Geriatric Massage Project (an institute that encourages and teaches the use of massage for seniors), “Massage can make life more enjoyable for the elderly by helping them to maintain their health and often to regain physical capabilities that seemed lost forever.”
Author Kelle Walsh states in Massage Magazine, “The elderly are often in mourning for spouses, pets, even for homes where they built their lives, and live with constant fear of dying alone. Massage therapy can ease physical discomfort from conditions such as arthritis, or osteoporosis, and help increase circulation to infrequently used muscles. It can also help those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or have had a stroke, as a means of communication. It also helps to reconnect the elderly with bodies that have long failed them.
Massage Therapy Today
Fortunately, we have moved beyond the days of Fredrick II and nurturing, healing touch is widely available in the United States, as evidenced by the number of massage therapy schools, spas and massage therapists. According to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), "almost a quarter of Americans had a massage in the last 12 months and more than a third have received massage in the past five years."
Our awareness of the benefits of massage continues to increase. According to a survey cunducted in 2007 by the AMTA, "87 percent of of Americans agree that massage can be effective in reducing pain and 85 percent agree that massage can be beneficial to health and wellness."
Massage Therapists are part of the growing health care industry. The number of hospitals offering massage therapy has increased by 30%. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, "employment for massage therapists is expected to increase 20 percent from 2006 to 2016, faster than average for all occupations."
In the tough economic times that we are experiencing in 2009 massage therapy continues to prove beneficial to more people more often than ever before. Excessive stress is believed to be the number one source of illness in the U.S., and receiving massage is a pro-active approach to stress relief in in a tough economy.
According to news correspondent Thea Rutherford, "In this tough economic climate, getting a massage may be the last thing on your mind ... or maybe not. But given its benefits, massage therapy just may be the luxury you shouldn't do without. Tense shoulders, back cramps, neck cricks sound familiar? If you're living with these symptoms, they are nothing to ignore."