The Power of Touch

Unpacking the many health perks of massage

By Molly Ramsey

Many of us would classify massage as an indulgence: A once-a-year (if that) treat that should come with a plush white robe and side of citrus-infused water. Yet science shows that massage is far more than fluff—it’s a serious form of therapy that can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, promote muscle repair, improve circulation and possibly even ease pain caused by conditions like arthritis. Massage is no longer accessible only through luxury spas; organizations like Roper St. Francis Cancer Care are providing the therapy, as well, underscoring its significant role in holistic health. Maladies that may benefit most from regular massage include:

  • Anxiety (and all its manifestations). Stress reduction is among the most well-known benefits of massage; however, the effects of that can be more far-reaching than you may think. Research from the University of Miami School of Medicine shows that massage can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol while increasing amounts of both serotonin (a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, libido, sleep, memory and more) and dopamine (a chemical messenger that can produce feelings of pleasure). These hormonal shifts have been shown to help improve sleep among people with insomnia and reduce anxiety associated with chronic illness, pregnancy, work stress and more.
  • Pain. When you bump your knee or stub your toe, what’s your initial reaction? Aside from voicing an exclamation (or expletive), we typically rub the injured area. This innate response taps into what psychologists dub the “gate control theory of pain”—an idea that a non-painful sensation or touch can override, or close the gate to, the transmission of pain to the central nervous system. Some experts believe that this may be one way massage works to combat musculoskeletal pain, whether it’s due to arthritis, fibromyalgia or sports injury.

Find Your Fit

Different types of massage are available based on your goals and aches. For example, trigger point therapy—during which the therapist applies pressure to particular spots on muscle tissue to release tension elsewhere in the muscle—may help relieve back pain, neck pain and headaches. Small studies have shown that deep tissue massage, which uses slow, deep kneading to activate the inner layers of connective tissues and muscle, can help ease aches from sports injuries, fibromyalgia and sciatica. And aromatherapy, which incorporates oils and lotions made from high concentrations of plant-based oils like lavender, tea tree and eucalyptus, can be highly effective for stress relief. Discuss what you hope to achieve with a licensed massage therapist; he or she can help guide you to a form that may be most beneficial.

Through the Donna Fielding Cancer Wellness Institute, Roper St. Francis Cancer Care offers massage services to those managing pain and stress due to cancer. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, call (803) 335-8813.

Hug It Out!

January 21 is National Hugging Day—a holiday that highlights the power of another form of physical touch. Hugging increases levels of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone nicknamed “the cuddle chemical” that’s a natural antidote to depressive feelings. Studies show a warm embrace can also activate the endogenous opioid system, or cluster of neurons in the brain that release soothing, pain-relieving chemicals.