Massage therapy (MT) is defined by the American Massage Therapy Association as including manual soft tissue manipulation that can involve holding, causation of movement, and/or application of pressure to the patient’s body; these manipulations must be done for the purpose of improving the health and well-being of the patient. MT can have many forms, with wide variations in duration of treatment, types of touch, apparatus used, and body sites treated. In addition, MT has been studied as treatment for a large number of illnesses and symptoms, including anxiety, depression, pain, rheumatologic diseases, asthma, migraine headaches, MS, PTSD, diabetes, cancer, and even HIV.(6)
Several theories have been proposed to explain why and how MT provides benefit to patients. The most commonly cited hypothesis is the gate control theory of pain reduction, which suggests that the more quickly transmitted pressure stimulus interferes with the slower pain stimulus, thereby decreasing pain reception by the brain. This could explain why MT improves subjective perception of pain. Another common idea is that MT may shift the autonomic system from a predominantly sympathetic state to a predominantly parasympathetic state. Effects of MT like slower heart rate, reduction of stress hormones, and a feeling of calmness could be explained by this theory. Other proposed explanations for the mechanism of MT include increases in serotonin levels, mechanical effects that reduce adhesions and fibrosis, indirect effects via improvement of sleep, and the one-on-one personal attention that occurs during a MT session. This last hypothesis is particularly interesting because it may also explain the efficacy of psychotherapy in improving many of the same symptoms.(6)
Anecdotally, the patients whom I observed having MT were very enthusiastic about its benefits. One patient came to the massage therapist because of a sinus headache. She stated that the treatment improved her symptoms of sinus pain and pressure, as well as decreasing the bags under her eyes. The therapist treated her by applying deep pressure with a circular motion over the patient’s ethmoid, maxillary, and frontal sinuses. She also manipulated the patient’s facial skin by using shallower touch and applying a cream. Throughout the treatment, the therapist spoke with the patient, explaining what she was doing and even telling us about her personal theories concerning how MT works. Furthermore, the atmosphere in the room promoted relaxation with soft lighting, plants and pictures suggestive of a natural setting, a warm massage table, and aromatherapy.