The Health Benefits Of Massage

Often considered a luxury, massage is more of a ‘way of life’ here in Shanghai than it is for many of us in our home countries. It’s just so ubiquitous; many of us may take our regular massages for granted and not realise the many benefits they are giving us. The fact is, massage is not only an indulgent way to pamper; it can also be a powerful tool for improving our health and well being.
The Chinese have known about the benefits of massage for centuries and have used it to treat all kinds of medical conditions. Today, research is confirming massage isn't just for muscle pain and sports injuries. We now know massage may boost immunity and help people with a range of conditions, from premenstrual syndrome to high blood pressure. Research has also found chemical changes occur when we are massaged, reducing pain and stress throughout the body. Several studies measuring cortisol (the chemical controlling pain and hormones) found them to be significantly reduced after massage. Decreased cortisol (stress) levels can improve depression, anxiety and even boost immunity. Massage also enhances immunity by stimulating lymph flow, otherwise known as the body's natural defence system.
One of the biggest uses of massage has traditionally been for pain. Massage reduces not only back pain but pain from osteoarthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome and postsurgical pain, lessening the need for pain medications. Massage promotes healing and in one study was found to promote muscle recovery after exercise by boosting the production of the mitochondria (your cells’ energy). Inflammation was reduced after only a ten-minute massage of the muscle. Doctors have said: “If [massage] works, it should become part of the conventionally recommended interventions for [medical] conditions”.
In fact, research also suggests massage has been found to stimulate pressure receptors found in the brain prompting action from the vagus nerve, which regulates our blood pressure. One study showed people with high blood pressure who received ten massages of ten minutes each over a three-week period significantly improved their blood pressure compared to a control group who went without massage. Other studies have found massage improves concentration, curbs headaches, eases cancer treatments, improves circulation and lymphatic drainage (helping to remove toxins), improves sleep, decreases fatigue and has a host of beauty benefits to boot.
There are too many types of massage to mention, however, some common types of massage are: Swedish or western massage which uses long strokes, kneading, deep circular movements, vibration and tapping to help relax and energise; deep massage, which uses more forceful strokes to target the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue, commonly to help with muscle damage from injuries; and trigger point massage which focuses on areas of tight muscle fibres that can form in your muscles after injuries or overuse. In Shanghai there are a wide variety of dry versus oil massages that also offer stretching, flexing and extending of our limbs to improve, encourage (and challenge) our flexibility.
As far as techniques, there is little evidence to support one kind of massage over another so choose the one specifically working to addresses your problem, whether it is stress, muscle pain or something else entirely.
In terms of pressure, a common myth prevails claiming, "deeper is better" and, "if it hurts it must be helping". Although pressure does play a key role in the massage’s therapeutic benefit, and some forms of massage can leave you a bit sore the next day, massage should not be a painful or uncomfortable experience.
Unsurprisingly, people receiving massages often intuitively know the difference between "good pain" and "bad pain". Trust your instincts, if your therapist is applying too much pressure, speak up and don’t be afraid to tell them to lighten up a bit. Rare but serious problems may come from too much pressure during massage, including internal bleeding, nerve damage and even temporary paralysis.
Although most people benefit from massage, it may not be appropriate if you have bleeding disorders or take blood-thinning medication, have open wounds or burns, deep vein thrombosis, fractures or a major injury. Always tell your massage therapist what you are trying to achieve, as well as specific areas to concentrate on or stay away from. Whatever you do, enjoy it! And at the same time, rest easy in the knowledge that this pampering session is also doing a world of good for your physical well being.