For the past few thousand years, the Western world has largely resisted the notion that a procedure as noninvasive and, yes, pleasurable as massage could have a significant healing effect. Finally, however, clinical centers throughout the U.S. are taking a closer look at massage’s medical benefits. One of the researchers most responsible for this change in attitude is Tiffany Field, PhD, who in 1992 founded the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, the first major center devoted to studying the healing potential of touch. Over the past 30 years, Field has written 20 books and more than 450 journal articles on the subject, collecting the kind of hard evidence that makes the scientific and medical establishments pay attention.
As head of the Touch Research Institute, she has documented the effects of massage on a dizzying variety of disorders. We asked Field to tell us more about what she has learned in studying both healthy and unhealthy people.
Q: How does receiving a massage affect most people?
A: It’s like finishing a run: You have the same feeling of total relaxation. We know that even a 10-minute chair massage can lower your blood pressure and slow down your heart rate. And your mental performance is enhanced. When we gave people math problems to solve after a massage, they did them twice as fast with half the errors.
Q: Many people suffer from some kind of physical pain. How can massage therapy make them feel better?
A: Massage helps people spend more time in deep sleep, the restorative stage in which your body barely moves. In our studies of fibromyalgia, we monitored the sleep of subjects who received 30-minute massages three times a week for five weeks. We found that the fibromyalgia sufferers slept nearly an hour longer at the end of the study period than they did at the beginning and that their sleep was deeper. We also found that by increasing sleep, we could reduce substance P, a neurotransmitter that’s closely associated with pain. Fibromyalgia is a vicious cycle: The less restful sleep you get, the more substance P is emitted and the more pain you have; the more pain you have, the more difficulty you have sleeping. We were trying to use massage to break that cycle, and it was very effective.
Q: How about reducing stress via massage? Does that have an effect on pain?
A: Yes. In a review of research on the topic, we determined that massage therapy lowers cortisol, a hormone that’s produced in response to stress, by an average of 31 percent. And when cortisol levels decline, serotonin, one of the body’s antipain mechanisms, increases. In our review, serotonin grew by an average of 28 percent after massage therapy. So by lowering cortisol, you boost your ability to fend off pain.
Q: How does massage affect the immune system?
A: In studies of women with breast cancer, we found that when cortisol levels are up, natural killer (NK) cells are down. Natural killer cells are the front line of the immune system. They kill cancer cells, viral cells and bacterial cells, so you definitely want them up. In one of our studies, for instance, women with stages 1 and 2 breast cancer were given 30-minute massages three times a week for five weeks. At the end of the study, the women had lower depression and hostility levels and increased urinary levels of serotonin, dopamine, NK cells and lymphocytes—all of which suggested their immune systems were stronger.
Q: You’ve also found some fascinating evidence that people benefit from giving massages. Can you talk about that?
A: Yes, we did a study in which elderly volunteers massaged infants at a nursery school three times a week for three weeks. There were a lot of positive results for the volunteers. Immediately after the first-day and last-day sessions of giving massages, the volunteers had less anxiety and depression and lower cortisol levels. Over the three-week period, they showed reduced levels of norepinephrine and epinephrine, two neurotransmitters connected to feeling revved up. Giving a massage turned out to have some of the same benefits as getting one.
Q: There are many different types of massage. Which produce the good outcomes that your studies found?
A: We use Swedish massage in our studies. That’s the most common type, the one most people are familiar with. We typically develop a specific massage plan for each problem. In cases where pain is localized, we usually directly massage the site or an area near the site. For instance, in our migraine study, we focused on massaging the nape of the neck. It was very convenient because once the participants were on their own, they could massage themselves. When we studied lower-back pain, we focused on the lower-back region, and when we studied hand pain, we worked on the hand. When an issue is systemic, though, such as some cancers, HIV or fibromyalgia, we use whole-body massage.
Q: Does pressure matter?
A: Moderate pressure such as you would experience in any kind of Swedish massage is the key to all the effects we achieve. Moderate pressure reduces heart rate and encourages brain wave patterns of heightened alertness and relaxation. What’s most important is that you stimulate pressure receptors. Light touch—that is, a featherlike stroke that mimics tickling—won’t work. Nor will pressure that’s so heavy that it causes discomfort and makes you tense up.
Q: Ideally, how often should people get massages?
A: Everyone who can should get a daily 10-minute massage. That doesn’t mean you have to rely on a partner to give you one. In fact, any activity that stimulates pressure receptors—such as walking, which presses the soles of the feet; doing yoga; scrubbing yourself with a brush or loofah in the shower; rubbing a tennis ball along your limbs—should have an effect similar to that of moderate pressure massage.