If you asked a random selection of people to describe briefly their impressions of what massage therapy is and what it does you’d probably hear words like: “relaxing”, “de-stressing”, “candles” and “waves-on-a-beach sounds”. Some who’ve been through rehabilitative therapy might say “decrease pain” or “improve function” or even “help restore normal living”.
But how many, I wonder, would say things like “increase number and activity of natural killer cells, stimulating immunity”? Or, “decrease harmful stress which suppresses the immune system”? Probably very few, but studies have shown massage therapy can improve immunity in a couple of ways. This information is not exactly new, but is likely news to most people.
So, what’s mechanism at play here you might be wondering? How can a back rub strengthen the bodies’ internal defences against illness and disease?
One aspect is through stimulation of white blood cell activity in the blood.
White blood cells travel through the blood stream and into tissues searching for, and attacking, microorganisms and other invaders. One study from the mid-nineties treated HIV positive patients with massage daily for a month. Though the HI virus itself was unaffected, massage was shown to increase this white blood cell activity to help fight secondary infections affecting the patients. This means that even though massage cannot cure disease, it helps to improve the body’s ability to do what it is always trying to do; maintain a system free of unwanted visitors.
The second mechanism in which massage improves immunity is by way of fighting stress.
The fact is stress can make us sick. It can cause health problems or make them worse. It can be shown that a side effect of stress is increased corticosteroid levels and atrophy of the thymus, both of which result in suppression of the immune response. High cortisol levels are an indicator of increased ‘fight-or-flight’ response of the nervous system. Stress can also affect the way we behave by changing breathing patterns and precipitate panic attacks. Massage has been demonstrated to lower cortisol levels in the body and to decrease a person’s perceived stress and anxiety levels. Massage increases a person’s awareness of tense areas in the body, which enables more relaxed posture and better breathing. By fighting stress, massage improves immunity to fight disease.
Massage Therapy has benefits that go beyond easing sore backs and necks. By incorporating massage into a regular schedule you can take a preventative approach to illness and disease. With a stronger immune system and stress under control, improved well-being and health are natural side-effects.