Massage as Medicine

Colin Cook

Part of becoming an adult is learning to accept that many, perhaps most, of life’s most pleasurable experiences are likely to subvert your health. Staying up all night to watch action movies? Check. Eating a half dozen fresh, glazed doughnuts? Check. Drinking half a bottle of aged single-malt scotch? Check. Having sex with someone you don’t know? Check. Any of these activities is likely to shorten your life. But I’m here to tell you there’s one pleasurable experience that isn’t bad for you and that actually contributes to good health. Welcome to massage as medicine.

Massage Feels Good

If you’ve ever had a massage from a skilled massage therapist, you know it feels good. If you haven’t, you can review the science. Massage releases dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, three of the four “feel good” hormones. “Endorphin,” in fact, is actually a contraction of “endogenous morphine.” So there’s that. But even if massage didn’t cause natural morphine to flow through your system, it’s pleasurable in another way. Massage relaxes you. And relaxation always feels better than tenseness. Don’t try to tell me that you aren’t tense. You’re living in the 21st century, aren’t you? You’re tense.


That explains a little of why massage is a pleasurable experience. But how does it contribute to your health?

The Biology of Massage

Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at University of Miami School of Medicine, was quoted in an article at the Prevention website. She said the movement of your skin during a moderate pressure massage calms and slows your nervous system. This calming effect reduces your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and changes the electrical patterns in your brain.


A 2005 review of research on massage therapy found that it actually creates biochemical changes in the body: “In studies in which cortisol was assayed either in saliva or in urine, significant decreases were noted in cortisol levels (averaging decreases 31%).”


Reduced cortisol might not impress you if you aren’t a biochemist, but according to WebMD, excess cortisol can lead to

      • anxiety and depression
      • headaches
      • heart disease
      • memory and concentration problems
      • problems with digestion
      • insomnia
      • weight gain
      • muscle weakness
      • diabetes.

Massage as Medicine

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is part of the National Institutes of Health. Its Massage Therapy page says, “Massage therapy has been studied for several types of pain, including low-back pain, neck and shoulder pain, pain from osteoarthritis of the knee, and headaches.” Most of these studies have shown at least temporary pain relief, and massage usually gets recommended for acute rather than chronic cases. But I think temporary pain relief is valuable in itself. And big pharma has built a multibillion dollar industry on it. If you have pain, whether chronic or acute, you should try massage. It may give you as much relief as you can get from medication, and it doesn’t have any of the dangers of pain relievers.


The bottom line is that massage, in addition to feeling good, contributes to your good health. And unlike watching movies all night, eating doughnuts, drinking scotch, or having sex with strangers, massage never makes you feel bad afterward! Book a massage session.