General medicine has come a long way in recognizing the verifiable benefits of massage therapy on conditions like anxiety, depression, chronic pain, fatigue, and more recently, sleep. It makes perfect sense, from the moment we are born, touch helps us communicate, grounds us to the world, and connects us to others.
In this way, it is unsurprising that the treatment has such a beneficial effect on relaxation and general health. But if you’re wondering whether nighttime massage is the key to peaceful sleep or just another false hope, we’ve done the research to bring you the answer. The good news is that whether you struggle with insomnia, depression, or any number of sleep-related problems, there is a good chance massage therapy could help you improve.
What is Massage Therapy?
According to Northwestern Health Sciences University1, therapeutic massage generally centers on the manipulation of soft tissues for an overall improvement of one’s well-being, but that improvement can come about in a variety of ways.
Massage therapy can include everything from hot stone therapy in a spa to a quick chair massage in an airport. The underlying commonality, though, is that massage therapists are trained to practice manual (or, with their hands), movement of soft body tissue, including muscle, connective tissue, tendons, and ligaments.1
How Do Massages Relax You?
Whether you’re opting for an intense Thai Massage or a more gentle Swedish Massage, massage therapy tends to have an overall relaxing effect. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar2, massage expert Beata Maciejewska says it could have something to do with the way the treatment stimulates serotonin production, which can later be converted to melatonin, an important hormone for sleep. Maciejewska says massage can also balance hormone regulation, leading to a thirty percent reduction of the stress hormone, cortisol.2
“Research has shown that the chemistry of sleep is relevant to massage therapy because massage can directly influence the body’s production of serotonin and the creation of melatonin”. – Beata Maciejewska.2
You can think of touch as a way to regulate emotions. In fact, science backs this up. In a study from the University of California at Berkeley3, researchers found that in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, touch helped them calm down, reduced symptoms of depression, and helped them to make emotional connections with others.3
Massage Health Benefits
Many studies4 show therapeutic massage can have a positive impact on almost every area of health. In fact, in 2016 researchers found that massage therapy had beneficial effects on prenatal depression, preterm infants, autism, skin conditions, pain syndromes like arthritis and fibromyalgia, hypertension, autoimmune disorders, immune conditions, multiple sclerosis, and aging problems like Parkinson’s and dementia.4
According to a report by the University of Minnesota5, this is because the treatment can facilitate a state of relaxation where the heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, and the production of stress hormones tapers off.5 Additionally, massage can reduce inflammation in the body6. Because stress and inflammation7 are such key elements in a variety of health conditions, it makes sense that treating these issues at the source with massage would improve so many areas of health.
Of course, your results depend heavily on what type of massage you get, and there are many to choose from. In this next section, we’ll go over some of the most commonly offered types of massage.
Types of Massages
Swedish massage offers a lighter approach targeting the surface layers of muscle8, rather than deeper tissue. Because it is not as intense, this method tends to be relaxing, mostly involving the use of hands for massaging instead of other tools.8 This approach can help with physical conditions like pain, muscle, and stress relief, as well as help people cope with illnesses like cancer, heart disease, stomach problems, fibromyalgia, and low back pain.8
Meaning “finger pressure” in Japanese9, Shiatsu involves manual pressure aligned with specific points on the body called “meridians.” It uses kneading, pressing, soothing, tapping, and manual stretching techniques. Unlike other forms of massage, in shiatsu, you’ll wear comfortable clothing and the therapist won’t usually use massage oils.9 This method has been known to improve circulation and release toxins10 by promoting proper drainage and stimulating blood flow.
This 2,000-year-old method11 involves the strategic placement of hot rocks on the body. Unlike other forms of massage therapy where the therapist focuses on manipulating the soft tissue of the body, in hot stone therapy12, the stones may be left on to promote relaxation or be used in the hands of the therapist to work out the tightness in the muscles.12Usually, the treatment involves the use of polished volcanic rocks called basalt, due to their heat-retentive properties.12 These rocks of varying size and weight may be placed on various acupressure points to promote relaxation and relieve tension.12
Unlike other forms of massage, sports massage specifically focuses on trouble areas13, rather than the whole body. Sports massage is mostly used by athletes or those who engage in regular physical activity, as it can aid in muscle recovery and help relieve muscle and joint pain. One study14 found it can also improve athletes’ flexibility and muscle soreness.
As this method focuses on injured or fatigued areas, the treatment may vary from person to person, and in some cases can be used to prevent injury by way of warming and stretching the muscles manually before exercise or performance.13
According to the American Pregnancy Association15, pregnancy massage, or “prenatal massage,” can help reduce anxiety, decrease symptoms of depression, relieve muscle aches and joint pains, and improve labor outcomes and newborn health.
Swedish massage is most typically recommended for pregnant people as this technique addresses a lot of the common discomforts associated with pregnancy hormones.15
Additionally, some recommend side-lying treatment for pregnant patients as lying on the stomach even when the stomach is suspended below the table could lead to improper pressure or stretching to ligaments in the belly.15
Can Massages Help With Sleep and Insomnia?
According to a paper by the American Massage Therapy Association16, massage can help people of all ages who struggle with insomnia, as well as a variety of other conditions.
Another study17 looked specifically at postmenopausal women who deal with insomnia and found that massage therapy helped with both sleep quality and overall quality of life for these women.
In some cases18, experts even recommend massage therapy as a replacement for sedatives like benzodiazepines for sleep.
As we mentioned earlier, this is likely because massage can help increase the body’s levels of serotonin, which can later be converted into the sleep hormone, melatonin.2
If your sleep issues are simply the result of something external – like a new baby – there is evidence19 that giving your infant a massage before bed can help them sleep better, as well. Ultimately, this should mean better sleep for you.
If you are having trouble with insomnia, take a look at our list of best mattresses for insomnia.
Can Massages Help With Other Sleep Disorders?
If insomnia isn’t your struggle, don’t worry. Massage has also been found to effectively treat a variety of other sleep disorders and issues.
Restless Leg Syndrome
The Mayo Clinic20 shares that soaking in a warm bath and massaging your legs before bed can help reduce symptoms of RLS, which could help you to fall asleep more easily.
Get More Info: Restless Leg Syndrome Guidelines
A study21 conducted in Taiwan concluded that traditional Chinese therapeutic massage, also known as Tui na, is a feasible and safe treatment for patients with Obstructive Sleep Apnea. According to the study, the therapy could improve the quality of life, sleep, snoring intensity, and excessive daytime sleepiness of patients with the condition.21
For More Information: Best Mattresses for Sleep Apnea
According to one study22, massage therapy can help those with narcolepsy get to sleep faster, improve their sleep quality, and even boost their alertness during the day. While massage may not cure narcolepsy, it is a safe treatment option worth trying.
Using a Sauna Before or After a Massage
It may not seem like it on the surface, but saunas and massage have a lot in common. Both are excellent tools for relaxation23. They also loosen up the muscles, improve circulation, reduce physical pain, and allow the body to detox.23
If you choose to use the sauna before you get a massage24, you’ll have the benefit of loosening up the muscles a bit so that your massage therapist can do some deeper work. It may also make an uncomfortable form of massage therapy, like deep tissue or sports massage, a little more tolerable.24 Additionally, getting into the sauna about two hours before bedtime25 has been shown to improve sleep.
If you are combining sauna bathing and massage, you should drink plenty of water in between the two. For a massage, your body needs to be well-hydrated, and saunas can be very dehydrating.24
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I get the same massage benefits at home?
According to a 2019 study26, couples who engaged in a massage at home –both receiving and giving – experienced a reduction in stress and improved their well-being, even though neither person had any prior training.
This may be because physical touch in and of itself is emotionally regulating when it is from someone you know and trust.3 However, if you have an injury or muscle issue that you need worked out, it may be best to leave it to the professionals.
Are there any risks to at-home massages?
Certain risks accompany attempting a massage at home. To avoid injuring anybody, here are some general guidelines.
1. Do not pour hot oil directly onto the skin
According to massage therapists27, the best way to heat massage oil is to warm up the oil by rubbing it in between your hands. Make sure it isn’t hot enough to scald your partner and don’t pour it directly onto the skin as it may heat unevenly.
2. Do not use a soft bed as a surface
If you or your partner have back problems, it may be best to give the massage on a mat on the floor or an otherwise firm surface. This will prevent any bowing or spinal misalignment. However, if your bed is very firm, it should be okay to use it as long as you don’t apply too much pressure.
3. Don’t crack their back
Unless you’re a chiropractor, most experts28 don’t recommend cracking somebody else’s back. While it may feel good temporarily, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you could end up causing more pain and tightness in the spine.
Which type of massage is best for me?
If you’re looking for less muscle tension, deep tissue or sports massage may be good options. For those with insomnia, a more relaxing Swedish or Shiatsu may be preferable.Ultimately we recommend talking to your doctor or massage therapist and listening to your body to determine which technique to choose.
With a long list of health benefits and an even longer list of people who swear by it, massage therapy can be a great drug-free alternative for improving sleep, decreasing tension and anxiety, or just a way to spend an evening relaxing with your partner.
Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to massage techniques, so we recommend you talk to your massage therapist about what your goals are and go from there. Also, always vocalize if the pressure is too soft or too firm so that you’re sure to get the most out of your experience.
Katie writes content at Sleep Advisor, where she has finally found people who appreciate her true passion for sleep. Based in Austin, Texas, she graduated with a degree in Communications and enjoys combining creativity with research to improve the world’s sleep, starting with her sleepwalking husband.
- “How to Become a Massage Therapist”. Northwestern University. Webpage accessed October 19, 2024.
- March, Bridget. “Is massage the key to better sleep?”. Harper’s Bazaar. 2018.
- Keltner, Dacher. “Hands On Research: The Science of Touch”. Greater Good Magazine: UC Berkeley. 2010.
- Field, Tiffany. “Massage therapy research review”. National Library of Medicine. 2016.
- “How Does Massage Work?” University of Minnesota. Webpage accessed October 19, 2024.
- Waters-Banker, Christine., Dupont-Versteegden, Esther E. et. al. “Investigating the Mechanisms of Massage Efficacy: The Role of Mechanical Immunomodulation”. National Library of Medicine. 2014.
- Liu, Yun-Zi., Wang, Yun-Xia., Jiang, Chun-Lei. “Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases”. National Library of Medicine. 2017.
- “Swedish massage”. Healthdirect Australia. Last modified May 2021.
- Pelava, Cari Johnson. “Shiatsu”. University of Minnesota. Webpage accessed October 19, 2024.
- Ullrich, Natalie. “Massage Therapy for Lower Back Pain”. VERITAS Health. Last modified November 7, 2022.
- “THE ORIGIN OF STONE MASSAGE”. Spa Experience by Better. Webpage accessed October 19, 2024.
- “Hot Stone Massage: Benefits and Cautions”. Spa Theory. Webpage accessed October 19, 2024.
- Aubrey, Cameron. “The Difference Between Deep Tissue and Sports Massage”. Discover Massage Australia. 2020.
- Davis, Holly Louisa., Alabed, Samer., Chico, Timothy James Ainsley. “Effect of sports massage on performance and recovery: a systematic review and meta-analysis”. BMJ Journals. 2021.
- “Prenatal Massage Therapy”. American Pregnancy Association. Webpage accessed October 19, 2024.
- “Massage Therapy Can Help Improve Sleep”. American Massage Therapy Association. Webpage accessed October 19, 2024.
- Hachul, H., Oliveira, D.S., et. al. “The beneficial effects of massage therapy for insomnia in postmenopausal women”. National Library of Medicine. 2014.
- Guina, Jeffrey/, Merrill, Brian. “Benzodiazepines II: Waking Up on Sedatives: Providing Optimal Care When Inheriting Benzodiazepine Prescriptions in Transfer Patients”. National Library of Medicine. 2018.
- Thomas, Chess. “Massaging your baby”. BabyCentre. Webpage accessed October 19, 2024.
- “Restless legs syndrome”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified March 1, 2022.
- Lu, Cheng-Nan., Friedman, Michael., et. al. “Alternative Therapy for Patients With Obstructive Sleep Apnea/Hypopnea Syndrome: A 1-year, Single-blind, Randomized Trial of Tui Na”. National Library of Medicine. 2017.
- Hill, Robyn., Baskwill, Amanda. “Positive Effects of Massage Therapy on a Patient with Narcolepsy”. National Library of Medicine. 2013.
- Hussain, Joy., Cohen, Marc. “Clinical Effects of Regular Dry Sauna Bathing: A Systematic Review”. National Library of Medicine. 2018.
- “Why Is a Steam, Sauna and Jacuzzi so Beneficial Before a Massage Treatment?”. VJW Holistic Therapies. 2018.
- Vihavainen, Raili. “Sauna and sleep”. The Finnish Sauna Society. Webpage accessed October 19, 2024.
- Naruse, Sayuri M., Moss, Mark. “Effects of couples positive massage programme on wellbeing, perceived stress and coping, and relation satisfaction”. National Library of Medicine. 2019.
- “Warming Body Oil For Massage: Four Proper Ways”. Life & Pursuits. 2024.
- McCallum, Kate. “Is Cracking Your Back Bad for You?”. Houston Methodist. 2022.