Massage helps ease high blood pressure and much more

Nearly 60% of doctors in the US recommend massage for some patients — almost twice as many as recommended it five years ago.

Why the dramatic increase?

For years, therapeutic massage was recommended primarily for musculoskeletal conditions, such as arthritis, low back pain and muscle tension. Now, credible research shows that massage has benefits that most doctors never expected. What we now know…


Scientists now have evidence that massage affects virtually every major body function — from immunity to lung and brain function — and confers health benefits through a variety of mechanisms.

Even though massage therapists are usually trained in one or more massage techniques, such as Swedish, Shiatsu and deep tissue massage, there is no evidence that one technique is better than another for most conditions.

Studies indicate that the application of moderate pressure — firm enough to make an indentation in the skin — is the key to massage’s health benefits. By stimulating pressure receptors under the skin, massage activates different branches of the vagus nerve, which regulates blood pressure, heart rate and many other physiological functions.

Massage also…

Reduces levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol. This is important for pain relief, easing depression and increasing energy levels. Reductions in cortisol also enhance immune function, including the ability of natural killer cells to target viruses and cancer cells.

Enhances deeper sleep stages (known as delta sleep), which helps reduce levels of a brain chemical, known as substance P, that is related to the sensation of pain.

Massage is now used to treat…


Patients with elevated blood pressure often have high levels of stress hormones. Massage not only lowers levels of these hormones but also stimulates the branch of the vagus nerve that leads to the heart. Stimulating the nerve decreases heart rate and lowers blood pressure.

In one study, adults with hypertension were given 10 half-hour massages over five weeks. They showed a statistically significant decrease in diastolic (bottom number) blood pressure and reported less depression and anxiety — common problems in patients being treated for hypertension.


The median nerve in the wrist passes through a narrow opening (the carpal tunnel) on the palm side of the wrist. Swelling or inflammation of the nerve, usually caused by repetitive movements such as typing or using a screwdriver, can result in chronic tingling, numbness and/or pain in the thumb as well as the index and middle fingers. Researchers at Baylor University Medical Center have recently reported that even gripping the steering wheel of a car for long hours may lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.

A daily self-massage can reduce pain and promote an increase in nerve-conduction velocity, a measure of nerve health.

15-minute self-massage: Using moderate pressure, stroke from the wrist to the elbow and back down on both sides of the forearm. Next, apply a wringing motion to the same area. Using the thumb and index finger, stroke the entire forearm and the hand in a circular or back-and-forth motion. Finish by rolling the skin with the thumb and index finger, moving across the hand and up both sides of the forearm.


Serious burns are among the most painful wounds. The standard treatments — including brushing away debris and cleaning the area — can be excruciatingly painful. Massage done before the skin is brushed appears to elevate the pain threshold of burn patients — perhaps by increasing levels of the brain chemical serotonin.

Example: If one hand is burned, another person can vigorously rub the patient’s other hand. This activation of skin receptors, in effect, blocks the feeling of pain related to the burn.


Studies show that massage curbs back pain, migraine and cancer pain. It may do this by reducing the pain-promoting chemical substance P as well as the stress hormone cortisol.

Key findings: In three separate studies, patients with back pain were treated either with massage or a sham treatment (a massage with insufficient pressure to provide any benefit). Patients in both groups were treated twice weekly for 20 minutes. Those in the massage group consistently had less pain and better range of motion than patients in the sham group.

Massage also seems to help post-surgical pain. In a pilot study, researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found that patients who received massages after heart-bypass surgery had less pain and fewer muscle spasms than those who didn’t get massages.

To find a massage therapist, consult the American Massage Therapy Association, 877-905-2700,


If you are unable to receive a professional massage, you can get some of the same benefits at home. It’s easy for your spouse, another family member or a friend to give you a massage by following some basic guidelines…*

The part of the body that gets massaged isn’t that important. For most conditions, rubbing any part of the body — such as the back, arms or shoulders — is effective. When moderate pressure to the skin is applied, the body undergoes physiological changes that help curb pain and other common ailments.

Don’t worry about massage strokes. The health benefits of massage typically occur regardless of the type of hand movements used, such as up and down or in circles. Using a variety of strokes can make a massage more interesting but doesn’t necessarily affect the results.

Use massage oil (available at health-food stores and pharmacies). Most people find this more comfortable than a “dry” massage.

*If you have a chronic medical condition, check with your doctor first.

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