Massages are great. From a casual shoulder rub by a partner to a luxuriously long session of Swedish massage by a licensed professional, massage can be very relaxing and enjoyable.
But can massage result in real health benefits?
According to the National University of Health Sciences (NUHS), massage therapy has many benefits. These include the following:
These benefits sound great, but the NUHS is actually a massage therapy and chiropractic school, and their health-benefit findings are based on research by the American Massage Therapy Association. Their assertions about the benefits of massage therapy are what we might expect from such organizations.
So, is there hard evidence that massage therapy is medically beneficial? In a post published on the Mayo Clinic’s blog, the message is clear: massage therapy has some positive effects. Their list is similar to the one presented by the NUHS:
Nevertheless, the Mayo Clinic’s article states up-front that massage therapy is considered part of “integrative medicine,” which is a medical approach that includes unconventional and alternative treatments along with those that are more clinically grounded. In other words, the Mayo Clinic stops short of saying that the medical benefits of massage therapy are proven, stating instead that “more research is needed to confirm the benefits of massage.”
Diving in a little deeper, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) tackled the question of the proven health benefits of massage therapy. The NIH is a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and it acts as the lead medical research agency for the United States. In a round-up and evaluation of many research efforts, an article by the NIH examined many ailments and the benefits of massage therapy.
Muscle PainThe NIH examined more than forty studies centering on various treatments of pain in the lower back, neck, and shoulders. While evidence was found that massage therapy was sometimes effective for short-term pain relief, the evidence for superior, long-term benefits was consistently classified as “insufficient” and “not of high quality.”
OsteoarthritisSwedish massage and other similar techniques are often prescribed for pain and mobility problems associated with osteoarthritis, but the NIH found only “low- to moderate-quality” evidence that it is superior to other treatments.
MigraineIn a number of studies, massage treatments were administered to patients suffering from migraine headaches. Many patients reported a reduction in the frequency of their headaches. However, the results were often similar or identical to control groups, which leaves the evidence for massage therapy as a proven migraine treatment inconclusive.
Cancer Treatment SymptomsWhile massage therapy is not a treatment for cancer itself, it is often prescribed as a supportive treatment for cancer patients, who are susceptible to high levels of pain, depression, anxiety, and fatigue. In the NIH research analysis, it was found that massage therapy can result in short-term benefits to cancer patients, especially when administered with other integrative treatments such as aromatherapy. However, the studies did not present strongly conclusive evidence that massage therapy was better than other treatments (and in some cases, no treatment) for soothing the effects of cancer and cancer treatment.
Few would argue against the assertion that massage therapy can have short-term beneficial health effects. It would be difficult to refute patients who self-report that they have less depression and anxiety due to massage therapy. And one can argue that any patient who feels “better” after a massage treatment is experiencing a real, objective, health benefit. However, it seems like massage therapy has a long way to go before being accepted as a conventional medical treatment with scientifically supported results.