You know getting a massage feels good, but you may not realize how good it can be for your health, too. For example, as soon as your body senses the first touch of pressure, it sends a signal to your nervous system that can slow your heart rate by more than 10 beats per minute and lower your blood pressure by as much as eight percent. And that's only the beginning of the health benefits massage delivers. It can help alleviate back pain, chronic headaches, muscle aches, stress and more.
Here's a look at some of the specific health pluses of common types of massage. You may never look at a rub-down the same way again.
Deep Tissue Massage
This massage technique uses slow, deep strokes to target the deep layers of muscle and connective tissue to promote flexibility and movement while reducing pain and stiffness. Those with conditions like osteoarthritis may see improvement in joint pain and range of motion with deep tissue massage.
Also called prenatal or maternity massage, therapists use gentle pressure to improve blood circulation, which reduces swelling. Pregnancy massage has also been shown to lessen lower back pain as well as symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful tingling or numb sensation in the hands that up to 60 percent of pregnant women develop. (Though pregnancy massage has not been found to be unsafe for the fetus, some practitioners may not offer it in the first trimester to be extra safe.)
Like acupuncture, shiatsu focuses on relieving illnesses brought about by imbalances in the natural flow of energy, or qi, in the body. But unlike the Chinese treatment, this Japanese massage modality uses thumb, finger and palm pressure (instead of needles) to increase the body's energy flow. Shiatsu may be particularly helpful for people experiencing neck, back and shoulder pain: In one study in the Journal of Holistic Nursing, people with back pain rate their discomfort as significantly lower over the course of four shiatsu sessions.
This type of massage manipulates soft tissues and focuses on relieving tightness in specific muscle groups that are repetitively used during a particular sport (like golf and tennis) or type of exercise (like running). Some therapists practice a method called myofascial release, which stretches connective tissue. In general, you’ll experience stronger pressure than you’ll feel in other types of massage. Research in the Journal of Sports Medicine & Physiology has shown that sports massage decreases the stiffness that occurs a couple of days after vigorous exercise, known as delayed onset muscle soreness, by up to 30 percent.
A relaxing treatment that utilizes long, sweeping strokes, Swedish massage increases oxygen flow to your muscles while releasing toxins, boosting circulation and making your limbs more limber and flexible. Swedish massage may be particularly helpful for people with fibromyalgia. It’s also a good option for women looking for relief from PMS and menopausal symptoms: In a study in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, researchers found that people who received Swedish massage had a significant decrease in the hormone arginine-vasopressin, which helps regulate the body’s water retention. Studies have also found that Swedish massage can reduce stress and the frequency of headaches.
While other massage therapies involve the use of oils on your skin to stroke sore muscles, Thai massage instead focuses on the stretching and gentle compression of your muscles while you are clothed. A study in the Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies found that participants who received a 30-minute Thai massage showed a significant decrease in muscle tension, pain and anxiety compared to a group that simply rested, making this a great option for those suffering from back pain, as well as stress, depression or anxiety.
How to Find a Massage Therapist
Massage therapists should be certified or licensed in their state. You can check the American Massage Therapy Association website for licensed therapists in your area, or ask friends, family and health professionals for referrals.
Massage is considered safe for most people, but ask your doctor first if you have skin burns or wounds, a tendency to develop blood clots, severe osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis or cancer.