General Medicine has come a long way in the past few decades 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, whether you struggle with insomnia, depression, or any number of sleep-related problems, there is a good chance the therapy could help you improve.
If you haven’t experienced therapeutic massage before, odds are you know someone who has. But if you’ve ever wondered what goes on during a typical appointment, the truth is, it varies. The treatment generally centers on the manipulation of soft tissues for an overall improvement of one’s well being according to Northwestern Health Sciences University, but that improvement can come about in a variety of ways.
Aside from the fact that there are many different methods, people also seek out therapy for a variety of reasons, including pain relief, relaxation, treatment for mental disorders, and even behavioral issues. From laying on a table at a spa while someone places steaming hot rocks directly on your skin, to sitting fully clothed on an inclined chair in a break room somewhere, it all falls under the umbrella of massage therapy.
While in most states therapists are required to have a license, not even that is a constant, and you can find therapists all over the world ranging from those who have practiced for generations, to those who took it up in the past few weeks.
So with all the inconsistencies and varieties of treatment, how can it be proven to relax you? In an interview with Harper's Bazaar, 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. She says massage can balance hormone regulation, leading to a thirty percent reduction of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Though remarkable, this is hardly surprising as studies at the University of California at Berkeley show touch is the basic language of human compassion, and we are surprisingly good at identifying emotions communicated through touch. In patients with Alzheimer's disease, touch helped them calm down, reduced symptoms of depression and helped them to make emotional connections with others.
We aren’t suggesting substituting human relationships with frequent visits to a masseuse, nor are we suggesting getting your emotional needs met at their offices, as that would be weird for everyone. The point here is, there is serious science that suggests touch or massage therapy has the power to help reduce anxiety and provide calming effects in a way that isn’t always explainable.
Many studies show therapeutic massage can help improve circulation, relax soft tissues, trigger the release of hormones like serotonin. However, these effects extend further than a healthy glow and more happy hormones, they can translate to a better attitude, better attention span, better pain management, and best of all, better sleep.
According to a report by the University of Minnesota, this is because the treatment can facilitate a relaxation state where your heart rate slows, your blood pressure decreases, and the production of stress hormones tapers off. Because stress is a key element in a variety of health concerns, this relaxed state could help decrease the physical symptoms of psychiatric disorders, insomnia, digestive disorders, sexual dysfunction, and many other conditions.
This is the most popular method in the United States, involving a lighter approach targeting the surface layers of muscle, 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. This approach should stimulate blood flow, decrease tension, and in some cases, increase the range of motion in the joints, according to the Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine.
Meaning “finger pressure” in Japanese, Shiatsu involves manual pressure aligned with specific points on the body called “meridians.” Also known as acupressure, this method has been known to improve the function of the lymphatic system by promoting proper drainage and stimulating blood flow.
The alternative method focuses on superficial tissue using the thumbs, fingers, elbows, and sometimes even knees to apply pressure to the meridians to rid the body of blockages that halt the flow of “chi” or vital energy throughout the body, according to VeryWellHealth.
A hot rock treatment is just what it sounds like: a 2,000-year-old method involving the strategic placement of hot rocks on the body. While the masseuse will usually focus on the regular elements of a massage involving soft tissue manipulation, 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.
Usually, the treatment involves the use of polished volcanic rocks called basalt, due to their heat retentive properties. These rocks of varying size and weight may be placed on the back, stomach, face, hands, and even the feet, according to an article from Medical News Today. According to the article, in some instances, therapists may even use cold stones to calm swollen blood vessels and soothe skin after the hot rocks.
This method is often more focused on performance and recovery than relaxation, however, its benefits are just as proven as other methods. Sports massage may be administered by an athletic trainer, a chiropractor, masseuse, physical therapist, and other health care professionals.
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. Additionally, the calming benefits of this method may help athletes focus and improve their mental state for performance.
In the case of prenatal massage, not to be confused with perineal massage involving the stretching of the birth canal preceding labor, some studies suggest the treatment during pregnancy can decrease symptoms of depression, relieve joint pain, and in some cases improve labor and newborn health. Measures in the mother including stress hormone production, heart and circulatory health, and mood regulation recommend this practice as effective for improving the physical effects of pregnancy and labor according to the American Pregnancy Association.
However, professionals from the APA 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.
We love giving you good news, especially when it has to do with better sleep. Massage has been recommended as a treatment for insomnia in many cases with mostly positive results, but we aren’t just saying that, we did the research to back it up.
The treatment is especially effective when it comes to elderly patients. According to a series of German studies, this could have something to do with the relaxing effect of touch, helping to promote relaxation and sleep among those with insomnia.
This is good news for those who have been treating insomnia with powerful sedatives, as massage may help replace them in some cases. When combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), some studies found the treatment could help boost serotonin levels in a similar way to the sedative-hypnotic drugs, using CBT to help smooth the transition and reduce the risk of relapse.
When insomnia is caused by hormonal conditions such as menopause, some studies found the treatment to be a useful coping mechanism that could help facilitate sleep and improve quality of life.
If your sleep issues are being caused by your baby who can’t seem to get to sleep, some studies suggest massage could help a baby get to sleep. The Mayo Clinic recommends gentle massaging of the limbs and torso with baby oil to help an infant stop crying and relax before bedtime. Some studies even found gentle muscle manipulation by a mother can help sync the circadian rhythm of an infant when performed before bed, producing both short term and long term results.
If insomnia isn’t your struggle, don’t worry. Massage has also been found to effectively treat a variety of other sleep disorders and other issues that often interfere with sleep.
The Mayo Clinic found that soaking in a warm bath and massaging your legs before bed can help to relax the muscles that cause uncomfortable sensations associated with RLS. According to the article, this could help you to fall asleep more easily. Combined with practices like stretching to start and end the day, you may find yourself less anxious and sleeping better.
A study 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.
For patients dealing with Narcolepsy, massage could help you get to sleep faster, improve sleep quality, and even improve alertness while awake according to a Toronto study. After monitoring a patient receiving weekly 45-minute treatments for five weeks, she reported over 100 percent improvements in all recorded sleep measures. While the treatment may not cure narcolepsy, the benefits might be worth giving it a shot.
Many of these studies examining the effects after treatment in the evenings, so while the time of day is often correlated with the effects, it may not always be the cause of improvement.
However, there could be special benefits of massage in the evening for some conditions, as the short term effects could be conducive to a state of rest. If you receive the treatment about an hour before bed this could help regulate your body temperature, improve your circulation, relieve anxiety, and ease muscle tension.
For those with chronic pain, RLS, anxiety, depression, or circulatory issues, this could be the boost you need to catch those elusive Z’s.
Depending on your partner’s skill, you may have a more enjoyable experience at a traditional massage parlor. However, in a study involving massage for autism management, the benefits were still evident when the patients' parents administered the treatment after being trained by therapists.
As many of the benefits come from the effects of touch, muscle relaxation, and increased blood flow, it may not always take an expert to produce beneficial results, especially with a little bit of instruction.
It’s important to keep in mind that in many cases improvements from the treatment resulted from an increase in serotonin production, so if your partner is unable to perform the treatment in a way that feels good, you may miss out on some of the health benefits.
However, before you get too critical of your partner’s techniques, a study from Dr. Sayuri Naruse and Dr. Mark Moss of Northumbria University found that both giving a receiving a massage led to reduced stress as well as improved well-being in both partners – even without prior training.
So the next time your partner gives you a half-hearted two-minute tribute after you delivered a twenty-minute spa-like experience (not that we’re speaking from experience), don’t fret too much because your labor of love probably helped you as well.
We’re glad you asked. Certain risks accompany attempting a massage at home, but thankfully most involve using your common sense. To avoid injuring yourself in your pursuit of sleep, here are some general guidelines.
While it might sound like a good idea to pop a bowl of baby oil into the microwave to step up your at-home massage game, it’s probably a better idea to warm up the oil with your hands. If you decide to heat oil, 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.
If you or your partner have back problems, it may be a better idea to administer the treatment on a mat on the floor or an otherwise firm surface to avoid bowing or spinal misalignment. If your bed is firm, you should be ok to use it as long as you don’t apply too much pressure.
Unless you’re a Chiropractor, we (and most doctors) would recommend leaving the back cracking to the professionals. 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.
This whole article revolves around the benefits of massage therapy, but we feel it’s important to note that some people should consult their doctors before attempting the treatment. If you have a bleeding disorder or take a blood-thinning medication, are recovering from burns or invasive surgery, have osteoporosis, or other serious medical conditions, the Mayo Clinic says you should probably get a second opinion first, and we agree.
While there may be an ideal massage technique for some conditions, it largely depends on what you’re looking to get out of the experience. If you’re looking for less muscle tension, deep tissue or sports methods may be a good idea. For those with insomnia, a more relaxing Swedish or Shiatsu may be preferable.
Ultimately we recommend talking to your doctor, your masseuse, and listening to your body to determine which technique or method to choose from. For a more comprehensive view of each method, this list could help you decide.
The world of massage is vast and varied, but it doesn’t need to be confusing. With a long list of health benefits and a longer list of people who swear by it, the therapy could be a great drug-free alternative for improving sleep, decreasing tension and anxiety, or just another reason to take a couples massage class with your S.O.
If you’re at your wit’s end and ready to give up, perhaps the best news of all is that there is another reason to hope for better sleep. Whether you have chronic insomnia or you just can’t seem to catch a break lately, there’s a chance this therapy could be the missing link in your sleep hygiene.