Massage and the Brain

In my 16 years of practicing professional massage therapy, one of the most asked questions I get is, “What exactly does massage do for the body?” This is a great question and a complicated one. To answer this question, we need to look at the brain and how touch effects the neurohormones our body produces and how this influences our soft tissue.

Only in the last 10 years or so, has massage been increasingly recognized as an alternative medical treatment, as opposed to just a luxury experienced once a year for a birthday or wedding anniversary. As time goes on, more and more studies and trials on the benefits of massage are being funded and will continue to do so. This is greatly important to elevate massage and massage therapy professionals in the world of health care.

Per the American Massage Therapy Association, 78% of massage clients said their primary reason for receiving a massage was medical or stress-related. This survey was done in 2017. Also per the AMTA:

  • 88 percent of individuals view massage as being beneficial to overall health and wellness.
  • 89 percent of consumers surveyed believe that massage can be effective in reducing pain; with 28 percent of respondents stating they have used massage therapy for pain relief.
  • The overall mean (excluding none) was 3.8 massages for those receiving massage in past 12 months.
  • Overall mean (excluding none) was 10.2 massages for those receiving massage in past 5 years.

These percentages have improved over the years, and shows how massage is changing from a “fluff and buff” spa form, to a true avenue for preventive health care.

So how exactly does massage affect us on a scientific level? That is still being proven to this day. We all know as therapists, that massage improves blood and lymph circulation. We can see it and feel changes in a client’s tissue. This is identified by a nice red color from deep work, texture change from hard to soft, an increase in flexibility of the tissue along with a decrease in trigger points and fibrotic tissue. The clients posture is often affected which is visible after the massage session. Most clients feel a positive difference in their muscles after a massage as well as their mood, compared to when they first laid down on the massage table. Pain can be completely gone or greatly decreased.

These often-dramatic changes are most likely due to the manipulation of soft tissue performed by the massage therapy professional, and partly to the chemicals released as part of the relaxation response.  Improved circulation can enhance the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to muscle cells. As cellular health improves, tissues function more efficiently. More efficient functioning leads to the removal of waste products such as lactic acid, and may increase absorption of excess fluids and therefore, reduce swelling (edema) from acute inflammation in the soft tissues. This is basic biochemistry and anatomy science. It is not a great mystery. It makes perfect sense and is highly logical. Yet, massage is not always understood by the medical establishment.

Massage relaxes our soft tissues, which in turn reduces painful contractions and spasms through techniques such as myofascial release, deep compression (Trigger point therapy) and friction. Massage helps reduce nerve compression by separating muscle fascia from other surrounding muscle fascial groups through the techniques just mentioned. This causes micro tearing, increased blood flow and circulation of healthy nutrients to unhealthy muscles. Therapists call this “therapeutic inflammation.” It essentially helps the muscles release and relax, changes the shape and position of muscle fibers and breaks the pain/spasm cycle.

When a muscle is contracted or a group of muscles are contracted, they can sometimes compress on the nerves around them. Once relaxed, the nerves can assume their normal work of transmitting messages to and from the brain, which improves functioning of the muscles and organs.

Now let’s talk about the chemicals in the brain and how massage affects them and vice versa.

Research conducted at the TOUCH Research Institute at the University of Miami, revealed that massage increases the availability of all neurohormones affecting brain chemistry. This boosts our immune system and our moods in a positive direction. There is the belief that massage strengthens our immune system by boosting our “natural killer cells,” which is the immune system’s first line of defense against invading illness. Studies also show that cortisol destroys natural killer cells, and since massage is believed to decrease cortisol, your immune cells get a boost. Massage even seems to boost immunity in those patients with compromised immune systems.

According to the Touch Research Institute, having less cortisol and more serotonin and dopamine in your system may also mean less stress, anxiety and depression. “We know that the right side of the frontal lobe of the brain is more active when we are sad and the left side of the brain is activated when we are happy,” says a research scientist by the name of Fields, at the Touch Institute. “Our studies have observed that massage decreases activity in the right lobe and this increases functioning in the left,” continues Fields.

The well-being people feel after a massage is a huge reason why more hospitals are offering therapeutic touch and massage to anxious and scared patients who are preparing for surgery as well as cancer patients going through chemotherapy.

As most of us know, hormones produced by our nervous system affect how an individual behaves and affects their overall wellbeing. It has long been suspected that massage therapy, and other forms of therapeutic touch, or a loving hug from a friend, has several mood enhancing benefits. The TOUCH Research Institute has revealed that massage increases the availability of all neurohormones affecting chemistry. Let’s talk about some major neurohormones affected by massage!

  • Dopamine is a neurohormone released by the hypothalamus. Massage seems to elevate dopamine by decreasing Cortisol, our stress hormone. Dopamine influences fine motor skills like painting or playing an instrument. It affects intuition, inspiration, joy and enthusiasm. Those persons lacking dopamine will likely exhibit clumsiness, poor focus and are easily distracted. Clients with Fibromyalgia, for instance, are generally low in dopamine. Having a massage weekly, can helps a fibromyalgia client have more control over their pain, which in turn, helps them do the things they love more easily, have more joy and less depression.
  • Serotonin is also a neurohormone, which massage can increase by also decreasing Cortisol. Serotonin regulates our emotions, acting to decrease irritability as well as reduce cravings for sex and food. Those low in serotonin often have difficulty sleeping, tend to suffer from depression and OCD disorders. Massage often makes us feel loved, appreciated and taken care of, thus helping our serotonin levels to rise and relax our mind. This is wonderful for depression, anxiety and chronic pain clients who have a hard time sleeping.
  • We cannot forget oxytocin! It is yet another neurohormone that is released by massage therapy. Oxytocin is also produced during sex and breastfeeding. It also helps support feelings of attachment for oneself, a lover, a friend and a new baby. Oxytocin is the “love” hormone. Therapeutic touch can create this feeling of love, like serotonin. Simply put, massage makes a person feel happy!
  • Massage can also do the opposite, meaning it can elevate epinephrine or adrenaline levels by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. Epinephrine is considered a hormone, not a neurotransmitter. We can often feel high after a massage because of this increase of adrenaline. This can occur from only 15 minutes of seated massage! This elevates a person’s alertness and gives them a pep of extra energy for the rest of the work day. A slower, longer and deeper more rhythmic massage on the other hand, reduces epinephrine levels, creating a feeling of relaxation, and facilitating deep sleep.
  • Trigger point therapy (deep compression) create endorphins, which reduce pain and create a sense of euphoria and the “hurt so good” feeling. These feel-good effects may last up to 48 hours. Endorphins are endogenous opioid neuropeptides and peptide hormones that are produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland. Essentially, massage can create a feeling of euphoria, like opioid drugs such as morphine, when endorphins are increased during a massage session. The principal function of endorphins, is too inhibit the transmission of pain signals to the brain. Massage can also inhibit pain signals to the brain by stimulating endorphins through myofascial release techniques.

To conclude, massage therapy and therapeutic touch:

  • Encourage feelings of relaxation
  • Love and compassion
  • Increased focus
  • Decrease of pain
  • Increase of energy
  • Promotes deep sleep

This occurs by:

  • Assisting the body to produce neurohormones that promote cell division
  • Helps tissues repair, regenerate and heal
  • Creates endorphins for pain relief
  • Creates feelings of euphoria
  • Decreases cortisol caused from stress
  • Increases the growth of neurohormomes: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, adrenaline and endorphins.

Research continues and there is still so much to learn! It is a fascinating and exciting time in massage therapy science. Help support our gifted and talented scientists and the many wonderful therapists who have passion to learn, discover and help their clients achieve optimum health through bodywork.

So why wait?? A massage should be in your very near future, and continue to be an integral part of everyone’s on-going health care. Nothing can replace human touch. Touch is essential to our growth both physically and mentally throughout all stages of life. Touch gives our lives meaning. Touch is life.

Madeline has been practicing massage for 16 years. She is interested in any new research around massage and bodywork. She works as a massage therapist for Harmonic Healing Massage in Denver with Owner, Jennifer Ouimette, RMT, and writes a blog for the business. Please feel free to leave any comments for Madeline on all blogs!