Have you ever said to someone, “I could use a hug”? How does a shoulder rub feel when you’re tired and stressed? Does your mood change when you curl up on the sofa with your pet?
Touch seems like a magical thing, but it’s much more than that. Multiple studies have shown that touch can make you healthier. It relieves stress, reduces pain, relieves symptoms of depression, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and strengthes the immune system.
Tiffany Field, a pediatric psychologist and professor at the University of Miami, determined that touch stimulates growth in premature infants in a study that she started in 1982, with her own infant daughter, who was born prematurely. “Pressure to the skin stimulates brain activity, slows down heart rate, lowers blood pressure, allows for a deeper sleep, makes the babies less irritable, and ultimately helps mental development and physical growth,” Field stated. Today, about 40 percent of neonatal intensive care units in the United States use neonatal touch therapy, where parents and caregivers lightly massage premature babies’ skin by using incubator gloves. Field advocates that all babies –those born prematurely, those with various medical conditions, and those in perfect health – can benefit from massage up until the time they are old enough to say they don’t want it.
Since Field’s early research with infants, the medical community has come to accept touch through massage therapy as an approved, effective alternative medical treatment.
For adults, professional massage therapy has been proven effective in treating and relieving chronic pain. Recent clinical research commissioned by the AMTA (American Massage Therapy Association) shows that 91 percent of respondents agreed that massage can be effective in reducing pain, and nearly half of those polled (47 percent) have had a massage specifically for the purpose of relieving pain. Here are some of the findings of this and other research:
- Massage therapy is more effective for chronic back pain than other complementary therapies.
- Massage therapy promotes relaxation and alleviates the perception of pain and anxiety in cancer patients.
- Massage therapy reduces post-traumatic headaches better than cold pack treatments.
- A study conducted at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found that massage, as part of hospital-based surgery treatment, reduces pain and muscle spasms in patients who have undergone heart bypass surgery.
- Massage stimulates the brain to produce endorphins.
How does massage relieve pain? Massage works the muscle from the external, outer mechanisms of pain to the primary, root cause.
Perhaps more importantly, massage also promotes healing and boosts the immune system. Getting a massage causes muscles to unclench, a racing heart rate to slow, heightened blood pressure to fall, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol to drop. In that relaxed state, your body is able to regroup and recharge. The result is a stronger immune system.
“Cortisol suppresses the immune response,” explains Roberta Lee, MD, vice chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. “Anything that increases the relaxation response triggers the restoration of your immune response.”
The power of touch is amazing. But as good as a back rub from your sweetheart feels, sometimes you need a professional massage therapist, according to USA Today: “A growing body of evidence suggests muscle therapy provides a long and varied list of health benefits. In fact, more people get their muscles kneaded and rubbed for medical purposes than they do for relaxation or pampering.”
Other conditions that may be improved with massage include:
- Allergies, sinusitis, asthma and bronchitis
- Arthritis (osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis)
- Carpal Tunnel syndrome
- Circulatory problems
- Digestive disorders, including spastic colon, constipation and diarrhea
- Headache, especially when due to muscle tension
- Myofascial pain (a condition of the tissue connecting the muscles)
- Sports injuries, including pulled or strained muscles
- and sprained ligaments
- Temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ)
If a professional massage is not attainable for you, you can still tap into the health-boosting benefits of touch by hugging someone, holding hands with your sweetheart, or snuggling with your puppy. Go ahead. Give it a try and feel the tension melt away.