There are many reasons to indulge and get a massage. Well-designed studies have shown that massage can reduce levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, improve joint function and reduce pain in people with osteoarthritis, temporarily reduce muscle soreness after hard exercise, and speed healing of sore, overworked muscles by reducing inflammation and otherwise amplifying the muscle cells’ repair process.

What no persuasive science has shown is that massage releases toxins that then need to be flushed away.

Massage therapy is a proven, non-invasive way to reduce chronic stress levels in the body. Dozens of studies have shown the effectiveness of massage therapy in reducing stress and millions of people avail themselves to the services of massage therapists to treat stress. Using massage to reduce stress is natural and safe and unlike some forms of alternative therapies, massage therapy is a proven discipline within the medical community with scientific evidence supporting the use of massage for stress management. Massage therapy does reduce stress levels. According to The Franklin Institute web site on the human brain and stress, “Massage releases endorphins that calm the peripheral nervous system.”  The Mayo Clinic website identifies massage as a valid medical method to reduce stress and pain. It goes on to say, “Massage reduced anxiety in depressed children and anorexic women. It also reduced anxiety and withdrawal symptoms in adults trying to quit smoking”. It may also release GABA, glycine, and other inhibitory neurotransmitters.

Stiff muscles definitely benefit from a massage, but scientists have never quite known why. Now, a team of researchers has shown that it works by changing your gene expression — quite literally, your body is hard-coded to release pain-easing chemicals when you're massaged.

So, a team of researchers from McMaster University decided to look at what massage does on a cellular level. Their findings appear in Science Transnational Medicine, and they're actually pretty surprising. In reaction to massage, the body changes gene expression to reduce inflammation and promote repair of muscle fibers.

How the hell did they work that out? First, they rounded up 11 men and made them "cycle to the point of exhaustion". Then they randomly chose one leg from each guy to massage, and left the other one alone. Just when the volunteers thought the pain was over, the researchers took a muscle biopsy from both the massaged and non-massaged calves both 10 and 190 minutes later.

From those biopsies, they could work out what was happening at a cellular level, by analyzing the level of messenger RNA (mRNA) in the samples. MRNA acts, as its name suggests, just like a messenger: it tells the body to increase or decrease the rate of production of proteins that affect how our body works.

Turns out that the massaged legs had all been informed by mRNA to produce more of a protein called PGC-1alpha and less of one called NFkB. In English? Well, increased levels of PGC-1 alpha leads to the creation of more mitochondria, which in turn generates energy for cell growth. Basically, it increases the rate of muscle fiber repair. Reduced levels of NFkB, on the other hand, reduces inflammation.

What are mechanical responses?

The physical manipulation in massage has two major physical effects:

  • Increase in blood and lymph circulation and this enhance delivery of oxygen and nutrients to muscle cells  
  • Relaxation and normalization of the soft tissue (muscle, connective tissue, tendons, ligaments), which releases nerves and deeper connective tissues

Organs can also benefit from massage, as they share neurological pain pathways with muscles, bones, and nerves. When muscles, bones, or nerves are distressed, organs can sometimes reflect distress and dysfunction. For example, low back pain can intensify menstrual cramps and menstrual cramps can cause low back muscles to tense. Massage can therefore improve symptoms associated with the functioning of both the organ and the muscles.

The relaxation response is a state in which your heart and breathing rate slow, your blood pressure goes down, your production of stress hormones decreases, and your muscles relax. The relaxation response also seems to increase the available level of serotonin, which is a chemical in the body that positively affects emotions and thoughts. While this information is promising, more studies are needed to directly confirm the relationship between massage and levels of serotonin in the brain.

Massage tends to elevate levels of dopamine, a neurohormone released by the hypothalamus. Dopamine influences fine motor activity like painting or playing a musical instrument. It affects intuition, inspiration, joy, and enthusiasm. Those lacking in dopamine will likely exhibit clumsiness, poor focus, and be easily distracted.

Oxytocin is another neurohormone produced by massage therapy. It supports feelings of attachment and can help during pregnancy, birthing, and lactation.

Seated massage that lasts 15 minutes can elevate epinephrine (adrenaline) levels by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. This can increase a person's alertness. A slower, longer, deeper, and more rhythmic massage can, on the other hand, reduce epinephrine levels, creating a feeling of relaxation, and facilitating deep sleep.

Massage therapy is very helpful for diabetes, Alzheimer’s, migraine because it increases circulation in the limbs and skin, blood vessels in brain and it also creates overall relaxation. But some claims that special and professional massage can help in curing cancer.

The relaxation response may decrease the physical effects of stress and reduce the risks associated with stress, such as hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, anxiety, insomnia, persistent fatigue, sexual dysfunction, digestive disorders, and psychological issues–to name a few.

Massage” bears in itself many “messages” for scientific and mankind world.

References:

  • http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/05/22/ask-well-massage-and-toxins/?_r=1,
  • https://www.quora.com/What-scientific-researches-indicate-that-massage-release-Endorphins-and-other-brain-chemicals-known-as-neurotransmitters,
  • http://gizmodo.com/5882575/massage-feels-good-because-it-changes-your-gene-expression,
  • http://www.pacificcollege.edu/news/blog/2014/11/08/neurohormonal-effects-massage-therapy,
  • http://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/massage-therapy/how-does-massage-work,
  • http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/02/120201141710.htm,
  • http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2012/02/13/a-study-that-oversells-massage-therapy/
  • https://www.fredhutch.org/en/news/center-news/2014/02/healing-hands–oncology-massage.html,
  • Migraine Cure Could Be A Massage Away
  • https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?documentID=134,
  • https://www.sharecare.com/health/diabetes/can-massage-help-treat-diabetes,
  • http://www.massageenvy.com/benefits-of-massage-therapy/muscle-spasm-massage.aspx
  • Image adapted from: http://www.elitesportsandspine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/massage-1.jpg