The 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 Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). 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.
Here are the most common types of massage, according to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA):
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 physician 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.
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:
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 at http://www.amtamassage.org/findamassage/locator.aspx.
There are several common licenses for massage therapists, including:
The American Massage Therapy Association
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Canadian Massage Therapy Associations
Massage Therapist Association of Alberta
Licensing. National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork website. Available at: http://www.ncbtmb.org/licensure/licensing. Accessed March 4, 2-014.
Massage can aid in pain relief. AMTA Position Statement. American Massage Therapy Association website. Available at: http://www.amtamassage.org/statement6.html. Updated September 2009. Accessed March 4, 2014.
Massage therapy. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/academic/natural-alternative-treatments. Updated July 2012. Accessed March 4, 2014.
Massage therapy for health purposes: what you need to know. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/massage/massageintroduction.htm. Updated February 2014. Accessed March 4, 2014.
Massage therapy may benefit newborns. AMTA Position Statement. American Massage Therapy Association website. Available at: http://www.amtamassage.org/statement4.html. Updated September 2008. Accessed March 4, 2014.
Types of massage. The American Massage Therapy Association website. Available at: http://www.amtamassage.org/findamassage/massage_type.html. Accessed March 4, 2014.
Last reviewed March 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.