Before undertaking this exploration into workplace wellness, and deciding to take ownership and action, regular massage was probably the only thing I was doing right for my health. There were times when I doubt I could have made it through another work week without the pain reduction and relaxation that came from massage. I am only one example, however, and additional information is essential for us to understand the benefits of massage, and the role it plays in wellness at work.
A video from Cleveland Clinic describes the stress relief, relaxation, and pain relief that massage can provide for people with neck and shoulder pain. This neck and shoulder pain may be related to seated posture in front of a computer, driving, or other activities that pull our upper bodies forward. Dr. Brent Bauer from Mayo Clinic shared similar views. The primary benefit is stress reduction, followed by pain reduction. As stress can suppress the immune system and reduce wound healing, anything they can do to reduce stress is helpful. Dr. Bauer explained that in numerous studies, the Mayo Clinic researchers have compared standard therapy with massage and almost all of the studies show reduction in stress, anxiety, and muscle tension. In the past couple of decades, the thousands of studies on massage have provided a body of evidence which supports massage as an important component of patient care in appropriate patients and conditions including back pain, fibromyalgia, stress, and anxiety.
According to information shared on the Mayo Clinic website, massage is an effective treatment for muscle tension, pain, and stress relief. There is evidence that massage may also be helpful for numerous additional conditions although further studies would be needed for confirmation. Risks may outweigh the benefits for certain patient populations including those with bleeding disorders, deep vein thrombosis, burns, healing wounds, fractures, severe osteoporosis, severe thrombocytopenia, or those taking blood thinners.
Most serious problems from massage come from the use of too much pressure. It is recommended that you let the therapist know immediately if the massage is uncomfortable, feels like too much pressure, or is painful. From my own experience, most therapists can easily adjust to lighter or deeper pressure when requested and would prefer you enjoy and benefit from your massage than suffer in silence and risk bruises or worse. If the therapist reacts poorly to a request to reduce pressure, or does not follow the request, this is not the right therapist for you and making repeated requests to lighten pressure or stopping the massage entirely are options for all of us. I have not had to request lighter pressure more than twice and have not yet needed to stop a massage. I know I would do so if I were in pain. Massage therapy is a wonderful treatment for pain relief, and I doubt any of us are looking for a new source of pain.
Dr. Mark Hyman Rappaport from Emory University shares some details around biological impacts of massage. His findings came from comparing people who received one massage a week for five weeks to those who received two massages a week for five weeks compared to a control group. They found immune system gains from weekly massage that were additive from the first massage. These immune system gains were not sustained with twice-weekly massages but resulted in even greater increases in oxytocin (associated with feeling good and bonding with others) and decreases in arginine vasopressin (“aggressive-related hormone”) and cortisol (stress hormone).
What does this mean? Get a massage once a week and you strengthen your immune system. Although the twice a week massages lose some of the immune system gains of the once-a-weekers, they are happier, get along with others better and are less stressed. I can’t help but ask if anyone is surprised by this result? If I could get massages twice a week on an ongoing basis, you can bet I would be happy and fun to be around. My take-home message is that I would sign up for this study in a heartbeat if you could guarantee I would not end up in the control group. A massage every week would be wonderful, two would be even better, and for the sake of science, I would even sign up for a new group that received daily massages.
Massage has clear benefits for many of us who struggle with our posture, spend large amounts of time seated or stationary, have neck, shoulder, or back pain, or struggle with stress or anxiety. There are health risks for certain individuals and populations, and as with any new treatment, we should consult with a physician before beginning massage therapy to ensure the treatment is appropriate and safe for our individual situations.