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The Value Of Hands-On Therapy

You might think of massage as a luxury available only to those who can afford a pricy spa. But massage can be a necessary and therapeutic treatment for a variety of painful conditions—and home products can make it affordable.

Massage therapy is an umbrella term for many different techniques. In general, therapists press, rub and otherwise manipulate the muscles and other soft tissues of the body primarily with hands and fingers, but in some practices with forearms, elbows or even feet.

Massage actually dates back thousands of years—Hippocrates defined medicine as "the art of rubbing," the very essence of massage. It first became popular in the US in the 1850s when two American physicians who had studied in Sweden introduced massage therapy here and promoted it for a variety of health applications. Interest declined in the 1930s and 1940s, but was revived in the 1970s—and it’s been growing steadily ever since.

Recent surveys estimate that about 18 million US adults get some form of massage therapy each year for a variety of health-related reasons—to relieve pain, rehabilitate sports injuries, reduce stress, increase relaxation, address anxiety and depression and boost overall wellness.

What The Research Says About Hands On Therapy

Although scientific research on massage therapy is limited, existing studies point to the effectiveness of massage therapy for many ills. Just a single session of massage therapy can reduce anxiety over a particular situation, blood pressure and heart rate; multiple sessions can reduce general anxiety, depression and pain. Massage may benefit specific conditions, like chronic low-back and neck pain. One study of hospice patients with advanced cancer found that it can help relieve pain and improve mood in these patients. Among other potential benefits, massage is thought to:

  • Enhance immunity by stimulating lymph flow, considered the body’s natural defense system
  • Re-energize weak, tight or atrophied muscles and relax injured or overused muscles
  • Increase joint flexibility
  • Promote tissue regeneration to possibly lessen scar tissue and stretch marks
  • Improve circulation by moving oxygen and nutrients into tissues and vital organs

There are numerous theories about how massage therapy can achieve these results. It may provide stimulation that helps block pain signals sent to the brain or that releases certain chemicals in the body, such as serotonin or endorphins, thought of as the body’s natural painkillers—in fact, the emotional benefits can be just as valuable as the physical benefits.

Massage therapy appears to have few serious risks if performed by a properly trained therapist and if safety cautions are followed. For instance, do not use massage therapy to replace your regular medical care or as a reason to postpone seeing a health care provider about a medical problem. If you have a medical condition and are unsure whether massage therapy would be appropriate for you, talk to your health care provider first—he or she may also be able to help you select a massage therapist.

Massage is not appropriate for some conditions. People with bleeding disorders or low blood platelet counts or who are taking blood-thinning medications such as warfarin should avoid vigorous massage. It should not be done on any area of the body with blood clots, fractures, open or healing wounds, skin infections, weakened bones (from osteoporosis or cancer, for instance), where there has been a recent surgery or in the area of a tumor (cancer patients should talk to their oncologist before having a massage that involves deep or intense pressure), says the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health.

Before deciding to begin massage therapy, ask about the therapist's training, experience and credentials—LMT is a Licensed Massage Therapist, LMP is a Licensed Massage Practitioner and CMT is a Certified Massage Therapist. The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) certifies practitioners who pass a national examination: A NCTMB has met its credentialing requirements for practicing therapeutic massage and bodywork and a NCTM, for practicing therapeutic massage. Increasingly, states that license massage therapists require them to have a minimum of 500 hours of training at an accredited institution, pass the NCBTMB exam, meet specific continuing education requirements and carry malpractice insurance. Be sure to ask about the number of treatments that might be needed and the cost.