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Why Massage Feels So Good

A healing rubdown can soothe your body, mind and soul. But how? It’s all about the science behind the treatment
Written by 
Canyon Ranch Staff
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 

Getting a massage feels amazing. In fact, you begin feeling better before the therapist even enters the room. You’re in a dark, quiet space surrounded by calming music and soothing scents. The cool sheets feel smooth on your bare skin. And once your massage starts, all that tied up tension and stress begins to get released through the power of touch. Why does it feel so good? Find out what’s happening inside your body and brain that makes this touch therapy so satisfying.

Your awareness shifts.

As you settle onto the massage table, remaining still, you can focus on the rhythm of your own breath, quieting your mind and letting your thoughts pass by. You’re truly engaging in the moment—otherwise known as mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state of awareness that brings your attention to the present situation and helps regulate emotions and boost body awareness. When you’re practicing mindfulness, the areas of your brain associated with emotions—particularly the insula and prefrontal cortex—become less active, causing you to become less reactive. You’re able to detach your feelings and just observe your thought process as you remain engaged in the current experience.

Your brain releases feel-good chemicals and pain diminishes.

The therapist’s touch causes an immediate reaction in your brain. As soon as your skin’s nerve cells feel pressure, they signal the brain to release feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which boost your mood and give you a natural high. As a result, stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline begin to decrease and the overall effect is one of euphoria and bliss.

If you have real aches or pains, the morphine-like effect from the endorphins will help diminish them by blocking pain signals from the brain. And if your muscles are sore after a rigorous workout, a good rubdown will actually help them heal faster. Researchers found that massage decreases the inflammation caused by exercise and increases the occurrence of cell repair.

Your brain responds to smells and aromas.

Many massage professionals use aromatherapy during their treatments by applying fragrant essential oils to your bare skin. These oils complement the therapist’s soothing touch and they smell good, but they also stimulate specific brain activity. Grapefruit oil can encourage the production of enkephalins, neurotransmitters that act as natural painkillers, while the oil from marjoram can boost your levels of serotonin, helping you feel calm. Lavender is one of the most familiar oils and is known to promote relaxation and sleepiness. And oil extracted from the tropical plant ylang-ylang triggers the release of those feel-good endorphins mentioned earlier.

Try using essential oils at home by drizzling your favorite into a bath or adding it to your unscented body lotion. As the oil combines with the hot water or the heat of your skin, its scent intensifies.

Your body and mind are able to function better. 

We often think we can feel the tension literally being worked out of our muscles, and that’s pretty close to what’s happening when we get a massage. The pressure from the therapist’s hand movements comes into play again, improving your circulation by moving blood more efficiently and releasing cell waste—like worn-out proteins—faster than your body does naturally.

And your mind gets a bit of a clean sweep as well. Researchers have found that just a 15-minute rubdown can help you to think more clearly and improve your alertness.

Reference(s) 
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Psychiatry Research
Touch Research Institute