When you’re stressed, it’s a good idea to take some time to relax so your body can reset. Each person is different in what helps them to achieve this. A common way is to get a massage because it relieves tension in the muscles throughout your body. Also, it includes calming music and a soothing atmosphere. What other benefits do massages provide? Are there any risks?

The Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, and Indians practiced and were convinced of the therapeutic properties of massage, making it one of the oldest healing traditions. They used it to treat a variety of ailments. It involves kneading or manipulating a person’s muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia to improve their well-being or health. According to the American Massage Therapy Association, about 19% of Americans had some form of massage in 2018.

The history of massage therapy dates back to at least 3000 BCE (Before Common Era) in India. Hindus used it in Ayurveda “life health” medicine. They believed it could heal injuries, relieve pain, and prevent and cure illnesses. Sometime between 1500 and 500 BCE, the Ayurvedic principles and practices were written down—this led to it being adopted throughout India and Southeast Asia.

Chinese massage methods combined skills and techniques from traditional Chinese medicine, martial arts, and the spiritual yoga training of Buddhists and Taoists. They developed a text called The Yellow Emperor’s Classic Book of Internal Medicine, which is still considered a staple of massage therapy alternative medicine. By 2500 BCE, massage therapy had made its way to Egypt and was depicted in tomb paintings. The Egyptians added their own techniques and are credited with developing reflexology. Close to 1000 BCE, Japanese monks studying Buddhism in China observed the healing powers of massage therapy and put their own spin on it, calling it “anma,” later known as Shiatsu. The Egyptians influenced the Greeks and Romans.

In Greece, between 800 and 700 BCE, athletes used massage to condition their bodies before competitions, and doctors often applied herbs and oils in combination with massage to treat various medical conditions. Hippocrates, the “father of medicine,” treated physical injuries with friction, a massage technique. He was the first to prescribe a combination of massage, proper diet, exercise, fresh air, and music to restore health imbalance.

The Roman physician Galen used massage therapy on emperors. Full-body massages to stimulate circulation and loosen the joints were common in Roman baths. Until 1600 CE (Common Era), massage therapy declined in popularity and practice in the West. In the early 1800s, Swedish doctor/gymnast/teacher Per Henrik Ling created a method, the Swedish Movement Cure, to help relieve chronic pain. It was the precursor to what we know as Swedish massage.

The demand for massage increased in the early 1900s. By the 1930s, Swedish massage had evolved. Its use in regular medicine helped massage therapy to become a legitimate and respectable form of treatment. In the 1950s, physical therapy became licensed, with massage therapy as a category. The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) was established and laid the groundwork for today’s massage practitioners by establishing ethics and education standards.

For many years, massage wasn’t a mainstream treatment because it was perceived as a luxury reserved for the wealthy. Also, its reputation went through an unsavory period with the advent of massage parlors, where the practice became associated with the sex trade.

However, between 1970 and 2000, massage therapy experienced a transformation, with a rising interest in natural healing methods revitalizing the practice. This resulted in more and more states regulating it, and industry standards in licensing and education emerged. This has led to massage earning a place as a legitimate and respectable form of alternative and complementary medicine.

There are many benefits to massage. The most common one is a feeling of deep relaxation and calm, which provides stress relief. When you have a massage, it prompts the release of endorphins – the brain chemicals that produce feelings of well-being. When you have higher levels of these, you usually have lower stress hormones, such as adrenalin, cortisol, and norepinephrine.

According to research, massage and myotherapy effectively manage chronic low back pain, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), anxiety, stress, soft tissue injuries, high blood pressure, and insomnia. Per a 2015 meta-analysis study, when your muscles are sore and inflamed, a massage can help bring blood flow to the area, reducing inflammation. For arthritis, massaging muscles increases blood flow to your joints, which might provide some temporary relief.

Myofascial pain syndrome is a chronic pain condition where pressure on your muscles can cause pain. While there isn’t a cure, a massage can help relieve the discomfort. If you experience tension headaches or migraines, data indicates that massages can reduce their frequency.

A 2016 study in Gastroenterology Nursing discovered that abdominal massages helped people dealing with post-surgery constipation move their bowels. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) states massages during pregnancy can improve circulation. However, check with your doctor before booking an appointment and tell your massage therapist that you’re pregnant.

When it comes to cancer, massages can promote relaxation. Although it can cure cancer, massage can reduce cancer symptoms or side effects of treatment, such as pain, swelling, fatigue, nausea, or depression.

A review of 17 clinical trials found that massage therapy might reduce depression. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Health Psychology revealed that couples who give each other massages benefit the giver and the receiver.

There are close to 80 different massage therapy styles, with each being popular at different times. Some styles use long, smooth strokes, and others use short, percussive strokes. Let’s take a closer look at the different types.

  • Deep tissue massage is one of the most common forms. It involves significant pressure with slower strokes (although less rhythmic than other types), which is designed to get to deeper muscle layers and tissue. This is best for giving attention to certain painful, stiff “trouble spots” in your body and could be helpful after an injury.
  • Swedish massage is a gentler type of massage focused on helping you relax. It typically involves soft, long, kneading strokes and light, rhythmic tapping strokes. Sometimes, these are combined with the movement of the joints. There are four standard strokes, including Effleurage, Petrissage, Friction, and Tapotement.
  • Myotherapy is used to treat soft tissue pain, injury, and dysfunction affecting the movement and mobility of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia. Remedial massage is similar to this type.
  • Lymphatic drainage massage is a gentle whole-body treatment designed to relax the nervous system and aid the body’s immune system. The goal is to increase the circulation of lymph fluids in your body. These fluids are rich in protein and move throughout your body, gathering things (bacteria, viruses, and waste) and carrying them to your lymph nodes. Your lymph nodes filter the fluid to remove them. The massage is usually done with light pressure and gentle, long strokes along the skin.
  • Reflexology is based on the principle that certain parts of the body reflect the whole. Reflex points relate to all aspects of the body, and are found in the feet, hands, face, and ears. The areas are believed to correspond to different parts of the body. By pressing on these points, you stimulate the body’s natural healing process. Reflexology uses hand, thumb, and finger techniques to stimulate specific areas of the feet.
  • Shiatsu means finger pressure, so this method is designed to improve the flow of the body’s vital energy (chi) by working at certain points of the body. These are comparable to the same points of acupuncture.
  • Sports massage is an application of, not a particular technique. Often, it’s similar to Swedish massage. Individuals recovering from injury or trying to prevent injuries use this type.
  • Trigger point massage concentrates on areas where there is tightness and tension and tries to ease that pressure.
  • Thai massage is when a therapist uses their body to move the client into a variety of positions. It includes compression of muscles, mobilization of joints, and acupressure.
  • Hot Stone massage involves placing warmed stones on specific areas of the body (acupressure points). The stones may be used as massage tools or temporarily left in place. Often this is used with other massage techniques.
  • Pregnancy massages can help with the significant changes your body goes through by reducing stress, decreasing arm and leg swelling, and relieving muscle and joint pain. It involves using specially designed pillows. Even babies can benefit from massage. Studies have shown that it can help treat constipation, colic, sleeping problems, and premature babies to gain weight faster.

Many people view massage as safe, and for the most part, they’re correct because serious adverse events are true rarities. However, massages can cause new injuries (mostly bruises and minor nerve lesions) and aggravate existing injuries and chronic pain problems. Typically, if you’re healthy, you’re unlikely to be injured during a massage.

A common side effect is a slight soreness after, known as post-massage soreness and malaise (PMSM). Other common side effects are inflammation and nausea. Some individuals complain of a headache after, which is usually from the position of their head during it. Bruising shouldn’t be a huge factor.

One concern among some doctors is the potential for massages to cause rhabdomyolysis (which occurs when too much protein is released into the bloodstream from crushed muscle). This would result from excessive pressure and would likely be mild. In severe cases, rhabdomyolysis is a medical emergency because the kidneys become injured due to excessive protein.

If any of the symptoms last more than a few days, check with your therapist or doctor for further advice. For painful or inflamed areas, apply ice packs or take a low dose of pain relievers. It’s also vital to drink water to flush out toxins. Resting or getting more sleep is beneficial too.

Before you can decide to get a massage, ask yourself, “What is the purpose of the massage?”

Is it for relaxation and stress control, or is it to help with symptom relief or a particular health condition?

Once you figure this out, let the therapist know what you’re looking for and ask which style the therapist will use (many use more than one). Some practitioners utilize either oil or talcum powder to allow their hands to slip over a person’s skin. Others use a sheet or thin piece of cloth. Typically, you’ll need to be unclothed, but not always. A massage can last anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours. When selecting a therapist, find one that is professionally trained. You can use the American Massage Therapy Association’s therapist locator to find someone qualified in your area. Be sure to relay past injuries to your massage therapist.

If you have health conditions or are seeking massage as a way to treat a specific ailment, talk to your primary care doctor or specialist before booking a massage. This is essential since there are some instances where massage isn’t recommended, such as if you have a skin rash/cuts/infection, a possible broken bone, or a life-threatening illness. Many doctors caution that massage shouldn’t distract patients from more appropriate care. Instead, it should be used as a complementary tool.

When it comes to getting a massage, there are many benefits. The key is to know why you’re seeking one and find a practitioner who can provide you with a solution. If you have any previous health concerns, check with your doctor before scheduling one. Otherwise, relax and enjoy!