Many of us associate relaxation with a trip to the spa, a day snuggled up by the fire, and, of course, getting a massage. And while we all know that massages are great for helping us to unwind, research has revealed various other health benefits too.
By influencing hormone levels, stimulating white blood cell production, and improving circulation, massage therapy can be used to help treat things like anxiety and depression, insomnia, and poor posture. Plus, it can also be an effective relaxation technique for people with autism or dementia.
Here, we’ll cover the different types of massage therapy and explain how they can be used to improve health.
What is a massage?
Massage generally refers to the use of hands or other tools to rub and knead muscles and joints of the body, often to relieve tension or pain.
The term ‘massage’ is actually an umbrella term that covers various different types of massage. These range from the most common Swedish massage to massages that have a more targeted and specific purpose, such as sports massages, which are intended to help athletes recover.
Interestingly, science shows that the effectiveness of massage all comes down to one important factor: pressure. According to Dr Tiffany Field, Director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, when the skin is moved at a moderate range of pressure, it has a calming effect on the nervous system.
Research shows that 20-minute massages are enough to see positive results. This means that the majority of professional massages – most of which tend to be around 50 minutes long – provide more than enough pressure to the body to experience optimal benefits.
What are some different types of massage?
There are various types of massage. But some of the most common types include…
Swedish massage. This is a gentle type of massage that involves long strokes, kneading, circular movements, tapping, and vibration to help the person relax and feel energised. Swedish massage is ideal for anyone who is new to massage, has a lot of tension, or is sensitive to touch.
Sports massage. Sports massages are geared towards people involved in sporting activities, to help protect against and treat injuries. It can also be used to improve flexibility and performance. Sports massage can be done as a full body massage or focused on particular areas that need more attention.
Deep tissue massage. This massage technique involves slower, forceful strokes, and uses more pressure than a Swedish massage. It’s intended to target deeper layers of muscle and connective tissues and is commonly used to help treat muscle damage and injuries. While deep tissue massages are more intense, you shouldn’t experience any pain or soreness.
Aromatherapy massage. These massages combine soft, gentle pressure, with the use of essential oils. Aromatherapy massages are best for people who are seeking emotional healing through their massage.
Trigger point massage. Sometimes, areas of tightness in muscle tissues (known as trigger points) can cause pain in other areas of the body. Trigger point massages focus on relieving these trigger points to reduce pain. The technique involves broad, gentle, flowing strokes combined with stronger, deeper pressure.
Hot stone massage. During a hot stone massage, heated stones are placed on different areas around the body. This massage is similar to a Swedish massage, only the massage therapist uses stones in addition to – or in place of – their hands. Hot stone massage can help to ease muscle tension, improve blood flow, relieve stress, and reduce pain.
Thai massage. This is a more active form of massage used to relieve pain and stress. Thai massages work the whole body by using movements that are similar to yoga stretching. Your body can also be twisted and stretched into various different positions. Thai massages can help improve flexibility, circulation, and energy levels.
10 health benefits of massages
1. Massage can relieve stress, anxiety, and depression
If you suffer from stress, anxiety, or depression then massage therapy may be able to relieve your symptoms. According to registered massage therapist Aaran Tanason, experiencing human touch, in a safe, friendly, and professional environment, can be incredibly therapeutic and relaxing.
This study shows that patients struggling with anxiety or depression were happier, more relaxed, and less stressed after having a massage. Another study found that women diagnosed with breast cancer who received massage therapy three times each week reported feeling less angry and depressed.
When it comes to relieving emotional stress, aromatherapy massage, Thai massage, and hot stone massage are good options. They’re proven to help boost mood, reduce stress and anxiety, and symptoms of depression. Alternatively, you could try Shiatsu massage, which promotes emotional and physical calm and relaxation.
2. Massage can help you to sleep better
Our sleeping patterns are directly impacted by three main hormones: melatonin (sleep-inducing hormone), serotonin (happy hormone), and cortisol (stress hormone). High levels of cortisol can often lead to insomnia, but studies have suggested that massage therapy is capable of reducing levels of cortisol by an average of 30%.
In addition, serotonin influences our wellbeing, memory, appetite, sexual drive, and ability to fall asleep and wake up. While it requires light and exercise to thrive, research has shown that massage therapy can also help to boost serotonin levels by up to 28%.
Lastly, melatonin – the sleep-inducing hormone that plays a key role in our circadian rhythm – can also be triggered by the pressure applied during a massage, causing you to feel sleepy.
3. Massage can help fight chronic fatigue
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a serious, debilitating, and often lifelong illness that causes symptoms including chronic pain, extreme fatigue, and flu-like symptoms. Living with CFS can make it hard to function, both day and night. Physical exercise, or even simple exertions such as brushing teeth or cooking a meal, can exacerbate symptoms.
However, while not a cure, research has shown that massages can bring comfort to patients with CFS by helping to relax the body systems, support digestion, and promote nerve and muscle relaxation.
Massage therapy can also be a good option for those whose CFS prevents them from getting enough exercise because physical manipulations of the skin and muscles can help to promote good circulation. Deep tissue massage can be especially effective, as it focuses on releasing any tension built up in the deeper layers of muscle tissue.
4. Massage can boost your immune system
The results of this study suggest that regular massage therapy can help to boost the immune system by flushing out toxins, increasing blood flow throughout the body, and boosting white blood cell count, which are vital in defending the body against illness.
A significant decrease in Arginine Vasopressin (AVP) – a hormone believed to help stimulate aggressive behaviour and increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol – was also seen.
Swedish massage and lymphatic drainage massage (gentle massage that encourages the movement of lymph fluids around the body) have particularly immune-boosting qualities.
5. Massage can ease muscle pain
Massage therapy can help to ease muscle pain by improving circulation and blood flow to the affected muscles and removing any acid or other waste products.
One study found the benefits of massage therapy to be just as effective as other methods used to treat chronic back pain. Interestingly, 36% to 39% of participants receiving massage therapy reported that their back pain was much better or gone completely at 10 weeks – compared with only 4% of those receiving usual care.
Swedish massage, hot stone massage, deep tissue massage, sports massage, trigger point massage, and shiatsu massage are all good options for easing muscle pain.
6. Massage can help to improve posture
According to registered massage therapist Aaran Tanason, most people deal with some kind of postural stress.
More often than not, this will manifest in the neck and shoulders. Typical causes include desk jobs where people may hunch over and place pressure on their back. More advanced forms of postural stress caused by prolonged periods of sitting down can cause pain or weakness in the lower back.
However, massage can be used to help counteract any imbalances that stem from sitting by loosening tight muscles, reducing tension, improving circulation, and increasing joint mobility and range of movement.
The most common types of massage used to improve posture include deep tissue massage, sports massage, and Swedish massage.
7. Massage can relieve headaches
Massage therapy has been shown to help people who suffer from migraine headaches better manage their pain. Sometimes, this means stimulating pressure points on the head.
One study found that participants had fewer migraines and slept better as a result of massage therapy. On average, they experienced a 34% reduction in migraines during the weeks they received massage therapy and a 30% reduction during the three weeks after.
If you suffer from migraines and would like to try a massage at home to relieve your symptoms, have a read of this guide to using pressure points to relieve headaches on Healthline’s website.
However, while massage can help, if you’re experiencing recurrent or very intense headaches, it’s important to contact your local GP.
8. Massage can help people with autism manage their symptoms
Recent research has suggested that deep pressure massage may benefit several common physical and cognitive symptoms associated with autism. For example, this study found that massage therapy could decrease the typical touch aversion associated with autism.
One theory behind these outcomes is that massage may increase the body’s levels of oxytocin – an important hormone neurotransmitter in the brain. It’s believed that oxytocin can reduce stress and improve an individual’s social interaction skills and sense of wellbeing.
There are, however, a few important sensory precautions for massage therapists to follow when working with individuals with autism. This includes approaching the massage table from side-on to avoid blind spots, offering noise-cancelling headphones, and allowing the person to familiarise themselves with massage oil aromas beforehand, to avoid overloading them.
Deep pressure massage is the most recommended form of massage for people with autism.
9. Massage may improve symptoms of dementia
Research has highlighted a link between massage and dementia, suggesting that massage could be used as a therapy to improve symptoms. For example, this study found that massaging the hands of dementia patients reduced agitation and biological stress markers.
Aromatherapy massage has been shown to be just as effective for dementia patients as cognitive training. It can also be used to enhance cognitive training by reducing the severity of behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia.
Scientists suggest that healthcare professionals and family caregivers should be encouraged to massage patients and relatives with dementia to help improve symptoms. However, more research is needed to identify which types of massage are most effective and how frequently they should be practised.
A combination of calming music and hand massage has been shown to be most effective in improving agitated behaviour in dementia patients.
10. Massage can help improve focus
Since massage can help to reduce anxiety and depression, fight fatigue, and help people to sleep better, it can often improve focus too.
Research has shown that when we’re sleep-deprived, anxious, or struggling with fatigue or depressive thoughts, we’re unable to give our full attention and learn efficiently. Sleep also plays an important role in consolidating memory, which is essential for learning new information.
When it comes to improving focus, no form of massage has been shown to be particularly more effective than another.
How to find a massage therapist
When searching for a massage therapist, it’s important to check that they’re suitably trained, qualified, and insured.
You can search for registered practitioners near you on the Complementary Natural Healthcare Council website.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to see a massage therapist, you could try massaging areas of your body yourself, or consider investing in a self-massager.
Massage therapy brings a range of various health benefits and can be an effective way to help you feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Whether you struggle with poor posture, insomnia, migraines, or muscle injury, massage therapy may help to ease or manage your symptoms and put you on the road to a healthier and happier you.
What do you like most about massages? How do they help you? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.