New research shows the many benefits of massage.–Andrea Renskoff

Hippocrates, the so-called father of medicine, once wrote, “The physician must be experienced in many things, but assuredly in rubbing.” Dating back to prehistoric times, healing touch has always been practiced by human beings. And today, modern medical studies confirm its benefits. Take a look at some recent research on the following pages.

Duration Matters

A National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine-funded study looked at massage “dosing” for chronic neck pain. The 2014 study compared subjects who received 30-minute massages two or three times a week for four weeks with others who received 60-minute sessions one, two or three times a week for four weeks, plus a control group who were simply put on a wait list. Researchers found that those receiving the 30-minute sessions did not have significant benefit versus those in the control group. But those receiving the 60-minute sessions were three times more likely to have clinically meaningful improvement in neck function with two sessions a week—and five times more likely if the massages were three times a week.

Treating Burns

Massage can actually play a role in burn therapy. Rehabilitative massage therapy helps improve pain, itching and scar characteristics in hypertrophic burns scars, says a Korean study published this year. Subjects with hypertrophic (swollen, puffy, reddened) scars were divided into two groups, both receiving standard therapy and one receiving massage in addition. While the appearance of the scar and the itching decreased in both groups, the massage group showed a significant decrease in scar thickness, melanin, redness and transepidermal water loss. The massage group also showed reduction in the scars’ distension.

Lower Back Pain

A Polish study published this year hypothesized that 10 deep-tissue massage sessions of 30 minutes each would have the same effect as the same amount of sessions combined with the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in treating chronic lumbosacral pain. The results showed a significant improvement with regard to the experienced pain and the self-reported disability in both groups, suggesting that treatment protocol might someday limit the overuse of NSAIDs for lower back pain. The study also noted that there’s very little research on the effects of massage during the acute stage of lumbosacral pain, but that pain is reduced with the use of massage in the sub-acute and early chronic stages.

Vascular Function

Researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago found that massage therapy improved circulatory function in subjects who don’t regularly exercise. The 2014 study asked healthy, but sedentary, adults to use a leg-press machine to the point of soreness. Half of the group received Swedish massage afterward while the other half did not, and a control group received massage without exercising. The exercise-plus-massage group reported no continuing soreness, while the exercise-only group experienced soreness for as long as 24 hours. Small tears and injuries that occur during normal exercise reduce blood flow. The exercise-plus-massage group showed improved blood flow, tapering off after 72 hours. The exercise-only group showed reduced blood flow, which returned to normal after 72 hours. What surprised researchers is that the massage-only group showed improvement in systematic, not just localized, circulation even without exercise.

Effect on Preterm Infants

A 2012 Detroit study examined preterm infants who were given massage five times a week versus a control group who weren’t. Some evaluations, such as number of infections and length of stay in the neonatal intensive care unit, were not different between the groups. But others were. The group receiving massage showed higher NK (natural killer) cytotoxicity, meaning their immune systems were stronger than the control group. Additionally, the infants in the massage group were heavier at the end of the study and exhibited greater daily weight gain.

Sleep for Chronic Pain Sufferers

This year at the University of Alberta, a small pilot study taught patients to self-administer shiatsu pressure technique onto their hands at bedtime. Participants reported falling asleep faster and sleeping longer after two weeks, and then again after eight weeks, compared with a baseline measurement. One patient with debilitating, chronic lower-back pain who was cited as an example spent 10-15 minutes every night performing the treatment. Instead of waking up every 45-60 minutes as she had been, she was able to sleep for 90-120 minutes at a time. The patient reported an enormous improvement in feeling rested. Because pain and fear of pain is a barrier to sleep, researchers hypothesize that the shiatsu may be effective in part because it requires cognitive concentration that provides a mental distraction.

Help for Prehypertensive Women

Results in a study of women diagnosed with prehypertension—considered a predictor of cardiovascular disease—showed a marked difference in subjects who received Swedish massage. The Iranian study from 2011 established one control group and another group that received 10- to 15-minute Swedish massage three times a week for 10 sessions. Blood pressure was measured both before and after each massage session. Both systolic and diastolic blood pressure measurements were significantly lower in the massage group compared with the women in the control group.

Aid for Autistic Children

Researchers at Western Oregon University examined the effect of a qigong massage protocol on autistic children with tactile impairment. The study published in 2013 analyzed a five-month period in which the children, aged three to six years old, were given parent-delivered qigong massage under the direction of weekly therapist-supported training. Tactile abnormalities are directly related to delays in self-regulation milestones that, in turn, inhibit social development. The children who participated in the qigong therapy showed a significant decrease in the tactile impairment and self-regulatory delay. The study also examined parenting stress, which decreased as well.

Depression Treatment for HIV-Positive People

At Meharry Medical College in Nashville, a 2012 study of HIV-positive subjects with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder were divided into three groups. There was one control group; one that received a 60-minute massage twice a week; and a third group that visited massage therapists who placed their hands on the subjects with slight pressure but no massage. The group receiving the true massage showed a significant reduction in the severity of their depression at the four-week mark, and again after six and eight weeks compared with the no-intervention or touch-only groups.

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