Hands up if a massage sounds totally heavenly right about now. Who couldn’t use a little kneading around those shoulder knots and an hour of zenning out?
But hitting the spa is also pricey, and it’s just a #TreatYoSelf thing, right?
Nope. It’s time to change up your perspective. Check out all the good it can do.
Massage therapy may:
- help your body move better
Massingill J, et al. (2018). Myofascial massage for chronic pain and decreased upper extremity mobility after breast cancer surgery. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6087660/
- relieve actual pain
Lee S-H, et al. (2015). Meta-analysis of massage therapy on cancer pain. DOI: 10.1177/1534735415572885
- reduce anxiety (ahhhh)
Pinar R, et al. (2016). Back massage to decrease state anxiety, cortisol level, blood pressure, heart rate and increase sleep quality in family caregivers of patients with cancer: A randomised controlled trial. DOI: 10.7314/APJCP.2015.16.18.8127
- boost your brain’s production of feel-good chemicals like oxytocin,
Morhenn V, et al. (2012). Massage increases oxytocin and reduces adrenocorticotropin hormone in humans. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23251939dopamine, and serotonin Field T, et al. (2005). Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. DOI: 10.1080/00207450590956459
- crank up your immune function
Chen P-J, et al. (2017). Effects of aromatherapy massage on pregnant women’s stress and immune function: A longitudinal, prospective, randomized controlled trial. DOI: 10.1089/acm.2016.0426
- help you sleep better
Kashani F, et al. (2014). The effect of massage therapy on the quality of sleep in breast cancer patients. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24834078
With all these benefits, massage shouldn’t be considered just an indulgence. We should look at it as one more way we can take care of our health, just like going for a run or eating an energy-boosting snack.
Misconceptions about massage are rampant, and we’d like to take care of that for you right now.
Given that a session of bodywork costs about as much as a five-class pass to a boutique fitness studio, you’re gonna want to feel results. Unfortunately, many people misconstrue pain and soreness as evidence that a massage is working.
Gritting your teeth under the pressure of too-intense massage only adds to your body’s tension, further hardening those muscles that desperately need to soften.
Digging into muscles is like that science experiment in elementary school where you combined cornstarch with water: The more you prodded the substance, the more it hardened, but when you stopped, it turned to liquid.
This property is called thixotropy (try saying that three times fast). In less scientific terms, it means that too much force will make muscle molecules cling together and almost harden, says Wil Lewis, a massage therapist in NYC and Denver.
“But apply a slower force, and the molecules easily slip apart, allowing the muscles to open, soften, and separate.”
If you’re feeling real pain during or after your massage, talk to your therapist about adjusting their technique.
The goal isn’t to turn muscle fibers to putty. It’s to apply just the right amount of pressure to kick-start that relaxation response, loosen and lengthen your muscles, and release tension rather than add to it. This helps you feel good both during and after your session.
While you might want to close your eyes and enjoy yourself for the full time you’ve allotted your muscles to be tended to, there’s also no harm in chatting up your therapist if you feel like it. (Don’t worry about being awkward — they’ve seen much worse.)
This chitchat is especially helpful when it comes to communicating how much force you’re comfortable with and which areas of your body need more attention.
“Your massage therapist is not a psychic,” Lewis says. “Their only way of ensuring that you are having a great massage with the correct pressure and detail is through feedback.” No need to have a full conversation, but don’t be shy about speaking up!
Yes, bringing your body and mind to a state of greater calm is a massage therapist’s objective. It’s what licensed massage therapist Gina Flores, founder of Essential Body Wisdom, calls “lowering the reticular alarm system.”
In other words, it calms the sympathetic nervous system, which is often high-strung due to super-busy schedules and other life stressors.
Besides chilling you out, a proper massage is also like spring cleaning for your muscles, says Lewis.
“When muscles are tired, they grab on to other muscles around them for support. Over the long term, they glue together, hardening and losing their ability to function,” he says.
A massage therapist works to knead out knots and isolate muscles from one another, which brings back range of motion — you know, that “Wow, my shoulders are freeeeeee!” feeling that comes once you roll yourself off the massage table an hour later.
Add to this the potential to reduce muscle spasms, help with depression,
Most of us consider massage a form of pampering and don’t realize regular rubdowns can be an important part of just taking care of ourselves.
“If you wait until you’re injured to seek out a massage therapist, it’s much more difficult to restore your body to health than if you’d been ensuring your tissues were flexible, pliable, and taken care of before the pain or soreness settled in,” Lewis says.
Think of massages as preventive care or, as Lewis suggests, as a lifestyle choice — no different from making a point to exercise on a regular basis to offset your risk of metabolic diseases and other side effects of inactivity.
So how often should you ideally get a massage? Flores advises anywhere from twice a month to once every few months for folks who aren’t dealing with a chronic issue or a current injury.
Unfortunately, few insurance companies cover massage unless it’s prescribed as part of physical therapy for an injury or another health issue. However, there are some ways you can reduce the financial burden of treating your muscles on a regular basis.
Licensed massage therapist Denise Williams suggests taking advantage of your company’s flexible spending account, if you have one. You may be able to use these pretax dollars to cover massage if you have a prescription from your doctor.
If you’re getting massage to treat a chronic condition and can show it with a prescription or letter from your doctor, you may also be able to deduct a percentage of the cost from your taxes as a medical expense. (Find more of Williams’ money-saving massage advice here.)
There are other ways to save on massages too. Look for a massage school near you that offers massages from therapists in training at a discounted rate. You can also search online for coupons or deals.
Relaxing on the massage table while your therapist works magic on your sore muscles is the best part about getting a massage. You don’t necessarily need the therapist to get the benefits, though.
Several studies suggest that self-massage can reduce pain, stiffness,
Massaging your own aches just twice a week, with either your hands or a foam roller, may be enough to keep muscle pain at bay.
It’s not as fun as the massage table experience, but it might help you feel better, you can do it anytime, and — best of all — it’s free.
A glass or two of vino may seem like just the thing to nix any nerves about letting a stranger touch your naked body and really relax — heck, some spas even offer wine. But it’s probably better to hold off.
“Alcohol and massage are a no-go,” Lewis says. “If someone is intoxicated, a massage will speed up circulation so much that the alcohol will flush into the tissues and hit the blood faster and stronger. The body also filters it faster, so instead of a rush of drunkenness, you just get sick.”
Not as fun as we’d hoped…
If you’ve ever felt a bit sick a day or so after a massage session, you’re not alone. During a massage, Lewis explains, “we relieve the tension and release the toxins, and now the immune system has to deal with it.”
More research is needed, but massage may improve lymph flow. The lymphatic system fights infections and gets rid of harmful substances.
When you stimulate the muscles, relax, and give in to the pleasurable aspects of a massage, sometimes you get a little, well, excited.
First off, this isn’t uncommon (whew!). Don’t actively try to avoid this or you may ruin the massage for yourself. (But, ahem, do respect that the massage therapist isn’t there to cater to any sexual fantasies.)
You can relax knowing that any trained therapist is equipped to navigate this situation professionally by proceeding respectfully or giving the client a moment to calm down, Lewis says.
Provided all parties involved act appropriately (keep in mind there are legal boundaries barring sexual conduct between a client and therapist), there’s no harm in feeling nurtured and euphoric in your body.
With all its body and mind benefits, a massage is much more than a luxury experience or indulgent self-pampering. Go as often as you can afford and want to, because a session with a pro even every few months is totally worth the cost.