Stress Relief: The Miracle of Massage (cont.)

Her research group is trying to understand the biological mechanisms that make massage so powerful -- looking at basic physiological measures such as heart rate, blood pressure, EEG; stress hormones such as cortisol; and chemicals in the brain that are thought to affect stress and pain.

Among her findings: Premature babies who are massaged three times a day have 47% more weight, are discharged six days earlier, and the hospital cost savings is approximately $10,000.

Depressed mothers who received twice-weekly massages before they delivered had lower levels of cortisol, which reduced their risk of premature delivery. It also reduced their risk of postpartum depression. Something else: None of their babies was born with higher cortisol (which affects babies' development.)

Her work has also included children and adolescents:

  • Two chair massages per week made adolescents less aggressive.
  • Asthmatic children who received massages had increased air movement, lung function, less anxiety, and reduced stress.
  • Teachers rated adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as being less hyperactive -- and more able to spend time on tasks -- following one month of twice-weekly massages. The adolescents rated themselves as happier and were observed as fidgeting less.

During massage, a major nerve in the body called the vagus nerve is stimulated, which slows heart rate, Field explains. "The heart needs to be slowed down for a child to pay attention. We think that's how it works with ADHD."

Other findings:

  • Autistic children were more sensitive to touch, paid more attention to sounds, and related to teachers better after massage.
  • When diabetic children received regular massages from parents, glucose levels decreased to normal range; they also followed diet requirements better.

In a recently published paper, Field reported that when patients with fibromyalgia had massages, they had less pain and slept better. They also had lower levels of "substance P," a chemical messenger for pain.

She speculates that massage works because it elevates serotonin -- the body's anti-pain hormone -- and reduces cortisol, the stress hormone.

Ready for a Massage?

Stress is indeed a big problem for everyone these days, and massage is a legitimate way to eliminate that stress. People who are "big exercisers" also need to give their bodies a break, Getz says.

"We all need to give ourselves a focused time to relax," Getz tells WebMD. "We're all operating on flight or fight."

If you're slightly reluctant about that first massage, just relax, she says. "A professional therapist will provide professional treatment, professional draping. All trained massage therapists are very conscious of people's fears about being touched and can help make you comfortable."

To find a good massage therapist: Massage therapy schools often offer discounted massages performed by students who are near the end of their training.

The American Massage Therapy Association also offers a regional "find a massage therapist" database on its web site.

Originally published Aug. 12, 2002.
Medically updated July 24, 2003.

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Last Editorial Review: 10/19/2004 8:44:08 AM