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How Does Massage Therapy Work? The SCIENCE Behind the Ancient Art of Massage Therapy

Updated: May 7, 2023

For thousands of years, people have been receiving massages. Massage has been used by ancient civilizations dating back to the Greeks, Chinese, and Egyptians. However, Americans weren’t aware of its scientific benefits until the last fifty years or so. Even as early as the colonial times in America, in the 1700s, there were professional massage therapists, called rubbers. They worked to help with orthopedic problems through rubbing and friction. But how does massage ACTUALLY work, scientifically?

How Does Massage Therapy Work?

Stimulates Lymphatic System and Immune System Response

Massage works by addressing muscular and fascial tension and also stimulating the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes are tiny, bean-shaped fluid-filled sacks located all throughout the body. They not only store toxins but also help our body to detoxify. They contain white blood cells, which help the body to fight off infection and are part of the body’s immune system. Lymphatic vessels are what carry lymph fluid, which is stimulated by massage. Light strokes stimulate the lymphatic system more than deeper massage strokes. Massage has also been shown to boost certain white blood cell types.

Because of the detoxifying effects, massage has on your lymphatic system, this increases your body’s need for water. It’s very important to drink a liter of water within a couple of hours after receiving a massage to help flush out any residual toxins.

Addresses Muscular and Fascial Tension

Massage therapy helps to relax the muscular tension by applying pressure and working through the muscular and fascial tissue. Think of the fascial tissue like Saran wrap for your entire body. It covers each individual muscle fiber and each muscle group as a whole. When it gets bunched up in one part of your body, it can eventually affect the rest. That’s why it’s so important to incorporate a regular massage and stretching routine. If you have any adhesions – which many call knots – in the muscular tissue itself, massage will also help to address these areas. Much like working out, massage creates tiny tears in the muscular tissue and increases blood flow to it, which helps it to regenerate.

Stimulates Blood Flow

Massage increases blood flow to the integumentary system, or skin. This allows your body to flush out old, stagnant blood and toxins, and bring in fresh blood. This helps to reduce inflammation and promote mitochondrial biogenesis. It also helps with muscular regeneration.

Activates Parasympathetic Nervous System

While receiving a massage, your body’s parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is also stimulated. This is the “rest-and-digest” part of your nervous system. Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is your “fight-or-flight” nervous system and is primarily activated in your day-to-day life. However, when you receive a massage, dopamine and serotonin are released into your bloodstream, and your parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This is why massage is so relaxing! Massage therapy allows your body to stop being in fight-or-flight mode and take care of the “less important” tasks, like digesting food, repairing itself, healing, fighting off foreign invaders, procreating and sleeping.

Boosts Serotonin and Dopamine

Massage therapy has been proven to boost serotonin and dopamine levels. These two hormones work synergistically together to promote feelings of happiness and wellbeing. They aid in treating conditions that induce pain, as well as depression and anxiety.

Gate Control Theory

According to Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, massage therapy promotes the gate control theory. This theory states that the skin has pressure sensors, which when activated, override pain receptor signals. The skin’s pressure receptors send information to the brain much more quickly than the pain receptors. This masks the pain signals that you’ll normally feel.

Stimulates Vagus Nerve Activity

Massage therapy increases activity in the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve connects the brain and spine to the organs. This helps control certain aspects of our bodies’ parasympathetic nervous system response. The PNS, as it’s often referred to as the “rest-and-digest” part of our central nervous system. It’s the nervous system that is activated when we are relaxed and at ease.

By activating the PNS, our cortisol levels drop and we are more relaxed. According to a study done by the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, a 45-minute massage decreased the body’s circulating levels of arginine vasopressin. This hormone increases the risk for high blood pressure by constricting blood vessels.

The results don’t lie. Clearly, massage therapy has some pretty incredible scientific proof behind it. So if you’re looking for a reason – or seven – why you need a massage, then here you go. Leave a comment below with questions or call our office today to schedule your appointment!


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