The Physiological Mystery of Massage

Until recently very little was readily understood about the effects of massage therapy on the various systems of the body, especially the central nervous system and the endocrine system. Today, thanks to a rich wealth of research done on the effects of touch and massage therapy on human physiology, we are beginning to understand in depth the true benefits of soft tissue therapy for human beings.The nervous system is divided into two parts: the Central Nervous System (CNS) which consists of the brain, the spinal cord and its coverings; and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) which innervates the muscles, joints, and organs of the body. It is further divided into the Autonomic Division. The Autonomic Division (ANS) is subdivided into the Sympathetic Nervous System which is responsible for fight or flight responses, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System which functions more for rest, healing, restoration, and returning the body to a balanced state known as homeostasis.

The body responds to therapeutic massage through stimulation of sensory receptors in the peripheral nervous system by creating a positive change in all nervous systems, thereby restoring homeostasis.

The Wonderful Marriage Of Massage & Research

Massage also creates changes in the endocrine system where hormones called neurotransmitters are formed. They communicate instructions that control systems by regulating body physiology. The balance of all hormones is very crucial. They affect depression, desire, sense of touch, alertness, sleep, hunger, sex drive and love. Research done at the TOUCH Research Institute at the University of Miami has documented some of the effects of massage on neurotransmitters. The following examples are just some of the physiological processes that are affected by massage.

Serotonin regulates behavior allowing us to do the appropriate thing at the appropriate time. It impacts emotions, subdues irritability, and regulates cravings for such things as sex and food. Low serotonin levels have been linked to sleep/wake cycle disturbances, depression, pain disorders and behavior problems, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. It appears that massage increases the availability of serotonin.

Dopamine influences fine motor activity involving such movements as writing. It affects intuition, inspiration, joy, and enthusiasm. Low levels of dopamine have the opposite effect, resulting in clumsiness, lack of focus and poor attention span. Massage appears to increase the available levels of dopamine in the body.

Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) activates mechanisms in the body that allow us to become very alert to danger, while norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline) activates functions in the brain. These various activations are called “the fight or flight response” and take place primarily in the sympathetic nervous system. When released at the appropriate time, these neurohormones can be life-saving; however prolonged release can lead to permanent changes such as high blood pressure, hyperactivity, and changes in restorative sleep patterns where healing and tissue rebuilding takes place in the body. If the levels become too low, the end result will be fatigue, drowsiness and sluggish responses to the world around us.

Research appears to show that massage seems to regulate the various neurohormones either by stimulating or inhibiting the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The balance between the two is critical as it helps us maintain homeostasis in the body.

During a massage therapy session, the client's response will differ in reference to which part of the nervous system is out of balance. Massage can just as easily foster alertness and a sense of energy for someone feeling sluggish as it can calm down an angry person who is anxious and irritable. Research has revealed that choosing the correct massage technique is very important. A seated massage lasting 15 minutes increases the production of epinephrine by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. This assists corporate workers in becoming more alert, more attentive, and therefore more productive. A slower, longer, deeper and more rhythmic treatment has quite the opposite effect, engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing epinephrine levels, allowing a sense of deep relaxation, and facilitating deep sleep.

Enkephalins and endorphins are produced in the body and are opiate-like compounds that moderate pain of all kinds, especially chronic pain. Massage increases the available levels of these two brain chemicals as well as other neurohormones that support satiety. Research indicates that massage increases the availability of all neurohormones affecting brain chemistry, providing the recipient of the massage with a sense of well being. Massage techniques such as trigger point therapy and acupressure block pain pathways by creating a compound that mediates pain and produces a sense of euphoria. Once the treatment starts, it usually takes approximately 15 minutes for all the benefits of enkephalins and endorphins to begin. It is believed that the effects may last up to 48 hours.

Oxytocin is a neurohormone that affects both couple and parental bonding by supporting feelings of attachment and care-taking. It also affects pregnancy, birthing, and lactation. Massage tends to increase the levels of this neurohormone which may explain the enhancement of feelings, connectedness and intimacy during a massage.

Cortisol is a stress related neurohormone produced by the adrenal glands during prolonged stress responses, indicating increased sympathetic nervous system activity. This neurohormone has been noted in many stress related diseases such as sleep disturbance and suppressed immune system. Massage has been shown to consistently reduce levels of cortisol and substance P, which when released in the body is responsible for pain transmission to the brain.

Growth hormone is very important as it promotes cell division and is involved in tissue repair, regeneration and healing, especially during sleep. Massage increases the availability of this hormone by encouraging sleep.

All these benefits and more are gained by sitting in a massage chair for 15 minutes or lying on a massage table for an hour.

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Reprinted with permission.
Professional Massotherapy, Canton, OH