In a previous blog I looked at research that shows the effects of massage on the central nervous system, particularly on the brain. In this blog post we’ll look at the more traditional understanding of how massage relaxes the body.
The body’s nervous system is made up of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system icomprises all the nerves and nervous tissue outside of the core of the brain & spinal cord.
The peripheral nervous system connects the body’s nervous system to the real world and has been compared to a communications relay system between the brain and our limbs / internal organs:
(Image from brainresearchuk.org)
The peripheral nervous system is made up of several parts, but the part that concerns us is called the autonomic (or involuntary) nervous system.
Autonomic means “self-regulating” (in other words we don’t have to think about things for them to happen) - in this case it includes things like pulse rate and normal breathing.
There are 2 branches of the autonomic nervous system which have opposite functions:
1. The sympathetic nervous system
This“fires up” the body for action by sending messages to the major muscles of the legs and arms to get ready to fight or to run. The heart rate is increased ready to face the emergency and more oxygen is taken in through breathing to get ready for action.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight-or-flight response.
2. The parasympathetic nervous system
This conserves energy, relaxes the muscles and restores the body to a calm state: heart-rate, blood flow and breathing rates all slow down.
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the rest-and-digest response.
So when we face a dangerous or stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system initiates the fight-or-flight response; when the danger is passed, the parasympathetic nervous system calms our body down again with the rest-and-digest response.
It’s obvious that if massage is going to relax our bodies, it’s going to work on the parasympathetic nervous system to help our bodies to calm down.
What’s less clear is exactly how massage achieves that. Research from the US in 1995 (Tritton) and from Sweden in 2005 (Aorell, Skoog & Carleson) shows that the slow rhythmical strokes of massage affects the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve wanders down from the brainstem (vagus is latin for ‘vague’ or ‘wandering’) into the chest neck and abdomen. The nerve endings of vagus reach into all organs of the body, including the heart, the lungs and the stomach.
The Vagus Nerve (in yellow)
The research showed that massage causes the vagus nerve to instruct the organs it monitors to slow down. So heart rate and rate of breathing are all slowed which, of course, relaxes the body. These messages from the vagus nerve, which initiate the rest-and-digest response, are also sent to the stomach, which is why your stomach may start to rumble during a massage.
It seems, then, that there’s a gentle chain reaction that starts with the rhythmical strokes of massage being picked up by nerve-endings in the skin which then pass messages to the brain; the brain then instructs the vagus nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system to go into rest-and-digest mode by calming the body down.
If you’d like to experience the theory in action, give me a call.