How Massage Therapy Works

messageThe power of touch is not completely understood, even by massage therapists and researchers. Massage can affect the musculoskeletal, nervous, and circulatory-lymphatic systems, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine (NCCIH). Science isn't exactly sure what happens in the body during a massage, but if done by a trained professional and used appropriately, there are few serious risks.

What to Expect From the Different Types

Here are the most common types of massage, according to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA):

  • Swedish—Considered the most common type, this involves long strokes, kneading, and other techniques on the more superficial muscle layers, along with active and passive joint movement. This type of massage is intended to relax and energize you.
  • Deep tissue—Designed to release tension through slow strokes and deep finger pressure. Deep tissue is so named because it focuses on the deeper layers of muscle tissue. The strokes and pressure either follow or go across the grain of muscles and tendons. It is commonly used for muscle damage from an injury, like whiplash or back strain.
  • Chair—This is massage of the upper body. It is done through your clothes while you are seated upright in a portable chair.
  • Sport therapy—Sports massage focuses on warming up an athlete to prevent athletic injury, keep the body flexible, or help rehabilitate injured muscles.

What Studies Have Found

Massage of pre-term infants has been shown to be beneficial by several scientific studies. Pre-term infants who received massage gained more weight in a 6-week period and were more improved in areas like sociability and soothability. Other studies have shown that massage can help improve babies' sleep and reduce sleep-disordered breathing in babies born with low birth weights.

Research has shown that massage can help with pain after surgery, relieve back and leg pain in pregnant women, and help children and adolescents with chronic pain. Other studies have suggested that massage helps relieve low back pain, neck pain, migraines, and fibromyalagia, among other conditions.

Of course, massage is not a total panacea. It can be inappropriate in some cases, warns the AMTA, such as in those with bleeding disorders or people taking blood-thinning medications. Massage should not be used in people with blood clots, fractures, open wounds, skin infections, or weakened bones. Anyone with these or other health problems should consult their doctor before having massage therapy. And although massage is safe overall, it may cause pain even when done correctly. Also, bone fractures and other injuries may occur if massage is done too forcefully on fragile people.

How to Find a Massage Therapist

Many states in the United States license massage therapists. Asking a therapist about licensure is a good first step to finding a competent practitioner. Here are additional questions worth asking:

  • Where did you receive your training?
  • Are you a member of the American Massage Therapy Association?

A licensed massage therapist will have been trained to provide massages in the safest way possible, thereby avoiding any injury or mishaps. To find a qualified massage therapist, you can ask your doctor for a referral or use the AMTA's locator service .

There are several common licenses for massage therapists, including:

  • LMN—Licensed Massage Therapist
  • LMP—Licensed Massage Practitioner
  • CMT—Certified Massage Therapist
  • NCTMB—has met requirements (including exam) of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork for practicing therapeutic massage and bodywork
  • NCTM—has met requirements (including exam) of the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork for practicing therapeutic massage