It’s a no-brainer: getting a massage is relaxing, everybody knows that. Whether it’s your partner massaging your shoulders for 5 minutes at the end of a hard day at work, a pampering in a spa in a posh hotel on holiday, or a deep tissue massage with a remedial massage therapist, in their different ways they’re all relaxing.
But what’s going on? In this 1st blog of a 3-parter I’ll look at how massage affects the brain. In parts 2 & 3 I’ll go on to look at how massage affects the rest of the body.
Emotions, thoughts memories, involuntary behaviour – all of these are controlled and regulated by the central nervous system which is made up of the brain and the spinal cord (which starts at the base of the brain and runs down the spine):
The central nervous system is responsible for all of the “higher” order thinking that makes us human: our creativity, imagination, insight, memory, motivation, judgement, anxiety and sleep.
Most books on massage ignore the effect of massage on the central nervous system, concentrating instead on the messages sent by nerves to the major muscle groups of the body. But research carried out at the University of Maryland and the Duke Medical School in 1996 and published by the International Journal of Neuroscience (Field et al, 1996, Vol. 86, No. 3-4 , Pages 197-205) shows that massage directly affects the central nervous system itself.
The researchers gave a massage to 26 people after work twice a week for 5 weeks; they asked another group of 24 people to just sit in a chair and relax for the same amount of time. Each group had electrodes attached to their heads during their massage / time sitting to measure their brain activity in an EEG:
Douglas Myers, Dalhousie Life Sciences Center
The EEG measured both alpha waves (the brain waves associated with wakeful relaxation, creativity and “effortless alertness”) and beta waves (the brain waves associated with anxiety and stress).
The researchers found that after 5 weeks of being massaged twice a week the group were all more relaxed and alert, whereas the group who hadn’t been massaged weren’t. The massaged group were less anxious; again the non-massage group weren’t. The level of hydrocortisone (a natural steroid released by the body in response to stress) was considerably lower in the massaged group compared to the non-massaged group, so the massaged people were less stressed.
More recent research from University of Miami School of Medicine (Field et al, 2005 Oct, Vol. 115, No. 10, Pages 1397-413) also found that:
Following massage therapy, there was an average 28% increase in the amount of serotonin found in a person’s urine. Serotonin is what’s called a ‘neurotransmitter’ – a chemical that allows certain messages to be transmitted to and from the brain - Serotonin is basically the brain’s “Happy Drug".
Following massage therapy, there was an average increase of 31% in dopamine found in a person’s urine. Dopamine is often talked about as the neurotransmitter of motivation, of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll!
So the research found that in addition to increasing levels of relaxation in the brain and reducing anxiety, massage patients were happier and more motivated.
Interestingly, whilst there’s been a lot of research on the effects of massage on brain activity, there’s no real understanding of why it has the effect of making people calmer, happier, less anxious and less stressed.
So what’s going on?
The first time someone goes for a clinical massage, it can be unfamiliar, even intimidating. But as you get used to it, as you begin to experience that no boundaries are going to be crossed, you learn that you’re in safe hands. It is this human touch, the therapeutic touch, that makes the difference.
As someone reaches out to touch the arm of a friend who’s upset, or a parent strokes the head of a child who’s sick, or the nurse holds the hand of the elderly patient, the human touch conveys comfort, a desire to help, and acceptance. So it is with massage: in a quiet room, human touch with an intention to help makes all the difference.
At the end of the day, massage isn’t just about manipulating soft tissue; it’s about therapeutic touch.
Read the next blog post on massage and relaxation.