Massage therapy is often unfairly characterized as a luxurious activity reserved for the indulgent, privileged, and wealthy among us. It is largely ignored by medical providers, with the exception of occasional usage as part of physical therapy for musculoskeletal problems. This is quite unfortunate, because there are many potential mental health benefits to massage that are beginning to be better understood.
A recent review article (Rapaport et al, 2018) summarized some of the core findings about massage for mental health. For instance, massage seems to impact brain activity in ways that improve relaxation (e.g., via changes in EEG activity and parasympathetic tone) while maintaining alertness. There is also some suggestion that somatic sensory pleasure circuitry in the brain may also be involved.
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Massage also seems to positively impact the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) and levels of neurohormones such as the “bonding” hormone oxytocin. Many of these brain structures and functions are similar to those targeted in other mental health interventions (e.g., relaxation training, pleasant activities scheduling).
Further, Rapaport and colleagues (2018) go on to describe several studies that suggest massage helps to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. It may also improve sleep, which is well known to be both a contributing cause as well as a symptom of many mental health disorders.
It is true that massage can be quite expensive and its cost can prohibit many people from experiencing its benefits. However, this is not a winning argument for not giving it serious consideration as a mental health intervention. After all, many people can’t afford the out-of-pocket costs of their psychiatric medications nor their visits to therapists and prescribers. This is why people have and utilize health insurance. Unfortunately, since massage has been relegated as a “spa day” activity and sits in the holistic wellness marketplace next to many unscientific and even pseudoscientific practices, it is rarely taken as seriously as it should be as a potential mental health intervention.
Far more research is still needed in this area, and some scholars have begun to sound the alarm (e.g., Müller-Oerlinghausen and Eggart, 2020). We need to better understand which massage techniques and what frequency of delivery are most appropriate for different mental health symptoms. There are also significant questions to answer about what kinds of professional qualifications should be required to deliver such services. Advocacy, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and innovative thinking may be needed to resolve issues related to affordability.
Given all the research that supports the positive impact of massage, and its many strengths when compared to other gold standard mental health treatments, such initiatives should be undertaken with haste so we can better understand how to maximize its effectiveness so more people can benefit from what it has to offer as soon as possible.