Do Massages Have Real Benefits
In fact, pain reduction—along with depression relief—is one of the benefits that research has most consistently linked to massage, says Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami.
Some of her work has shown that massage may improve immune system function in people with breast cancer and leukemia, along with reducing their physical and emotional pain. Asked how massage could provide so many health perks, Field says several fMRI studies have shown that massage increases blood flow in areas of the brain associated with mood and stress regulation.
When you bump your elbow or knee and experience pain, your first instinct is to rub the pain site, Field says. This plays into something called the “gate theory” of pain, which theorizes that your brain is unable to fully register painful stimuli when related touch receptors are activated. “This is another way pain might be alleviated by massage,” she says.
In terms of improving immune function, she says the hormone and nervous system shifts that take place following massage may protect the immune system’s natural killer cells—a type of white blood cell that fights off viruses and helps prevent tumor growth.
But most people only care if—not how—massage works. While the latter is really a question for medical researchers, the existing evidence indicates that, for a range of health conditions, it does. (Some studies on preterm infants have even shown massage can promote vagus activity and markers of growth.)
It’s still tricky to determine how much is ideal, Field says. “Most of the studies have looked at one massage a week,” she says. But there haven’t been many comprehensive studies comparing different massage frequencies. “I always say that it’s probably like exercise, where more is better,” she says.
Whether you can afford regular massages, or if you only have 5 minutes a day for some foam rolling, both should do you some good, Field says.