From an early age, we learn that the touch of a hand can ease pain. When a toddler bangs his knee in a tricycle accident, he’ll instinctively rub the sore spot. Likewise, an office worker with stiff shoulders will probably try to knead them. And if a dancer can’t shake the throbbing pain in her back, she just might schedule an appointment with a massage therapist.
The healing power of a well-placed hand is so apparent that just about every culture in history has used massage to relieve pain. Massage faded into the background with the arrival of modern medicine, but a growing number of people are turning (or returning) to hands-on relief. According to a 2008 survey by the American Massage Therapy Association, about 21 percent of adults had a massage at least once in the last year, and almost 25 percent have used massage therapy at least once for pain relief.
It may be an “alternative treatment,” but massage already has the respect of the medical community. As reported in Rheumatology, more than 70 percent of doctors say that they have referred their patients to massage therapists.
If you’re suffering from pain — brief or chronic — you may want to give massage a try. Minor aches and pains aside, you should have a doctor evaluate you to rule out other causes of pain (especially persistent or acute pain for which there’s no apparent cause); in some cases pain can signal a serious condition, such as cancer or scoliosis. Also, before you climb into the massage chair or lie down on the table, you’ll probably want answers to a few questions.
How does massage ease pain?
Massage seems to ease pain in several different ways. For starters, it can increase blood flow to sore, stiff joints and muscles, which are warmed by the extra circulation. As reported by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, animal studies have found that massage also triggers the release of natural painkillers called opioids in the brain. (The report doesn’t explain how scientists massage the animals.) Animal studies also suggest that massage speeds up the flow of oxytocin, a hormone that relaxes muscles and encourages feelings of calmness and contentment. As an aside, oxytocin happens to be the same hormone that flows through women before labor. It relaxes the uterus and helps cement the bond between mother and infant, earning it the nickname “love hormone.” Massage may also change the way the brain senses pain. As Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky has said, the short, sharp sensations of a good massage can temporarily make the brain forget about other aches.
How effective is massage for pain relief?
There’s little doubt that a good rub-down can ease pain and tightness in stressed, overworked muscles. Now there’s growing evidence that it can also help relieve chronic (long-lasting) pain, especially the lower-back variety. A study of 262 patients published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that massage was far superior to acupuncture or patient education for relieving back pain. After 10 weeks, 74 percent of patients said massage was “very helpful.” Only 46 percent for those who received acupuncture and about 17 percent of those who read a self-help book had the same response. Massage patients were also four times less likely than other patients to report being bedridden with pain. The authors concluded that “massage might be an effective alternative to conventional medical care for persistent back pain.”
In a true test of its value, massage has even been shown to ease the chronic pain and other miseries suffered by cancer patients. A study of more than 1,200 patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management found that massage reduces symptoms such as anxiety, nausea, and pain by about 50 percent.