Whether it’s a back rub from your partner or a hand massage during a manicure, a good rubdown can be a total godsend. But it doesn’t just feel nice: Research suggests (and experts agree) that getting massaged can actually benefit your health.
You can’t argue with science (and probably wouldn’t want to), so keep these facts in mind the next time you beg someone for a massage or consider splurging on a pro treatment:
1. It’s basically a painkiller — especially when your masseur gets his hands on your bare skin. In one study, when neuroscientists compared the brain activity of people undergoing different touch-treatments (e.g., with and without rubber gloves, with and without movement, etc.), bare-handed massages activated the same part of the brain that is activated by opioid painkillers such as codeine.
You don’t need a prescription for massage, so if you feel pain in a particular area, ask someone to press their fingers into the specific pain point (often referred to as a knot, or contracted muscle fibers where blood flow is impaired) for about 10 seconds with sustained, medium pressure. (The inclination is to rub all over, but that isn’t as effective for targeting knots.) Direct pressure should feel a little uncomfortable and exquisitely intense, but not painful, says Patrick Walsh, clinical director at Shift Integrative Medicine in New York City, and the New York Giants’ former sports massage therapist.
Meanwhile, take a deep breath and release it. Picture the knot going away. It sounds a little crazy, but Walsh says this helps your brain get those muscles to relax. (Oh, and if you can’t recruit a masseur? Lie on a foam roller, medicine ball, or tennis ball in a way that puts pressure directly on the knot.)
2. It boosts your immunity. Massage doesn’t just get the blood flowing – it actually changes your blood’s composition for the better. After a 45-minute Swedish massage (a technique that involves long strokes, deep kneading, and circular movements to push blood toward the heart), recipients had significantly higher levels of blood proteins that play a major role in protecting the body from tumors, viral infections, and other pathogens, compared to blood samples taken from a control group, according to a study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
3. It improves your flexibility. If you can’t even fathom contorting yourself into intimate positions like the Arc de Triumph, Erotic Accordion, or Pinwheel, there’s hope: Two 30-minute massages per week can improve your trunk flexibility and relieve pain associated with lower back stiffness, according to a five-week study that was published in International Journal of Neuroscience study. Tell your partner — massage is a gift that gives back!
4. It reduces stress. Before a date, interview, or game, it can alleviate the tension in your muscles and your mind, says Dolvett Quince, the lead trainer on NBC’s The Biggest Loser and a massage and wellness consultant for Brookstone. An overwhelming amount of evidence suggests that massage can actually slash most physiological markers of stress. One Korean study found that patients who got hand massages five minutes before cataract surgery had significantly lower heart rates, blood pressure, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who went into surgery without any kind of rubdown.
5. It fends off headaches. Lots of things can trigger a headache, but many stem from tension in the neck that restricts blood flow to the brain. Oftentimes, a neck massage can boost blood flow and alleviate the pain, Walsh says. Also, research (including one four-week study in which participants got two 30-minute massages per week) suggests that massage also reduces frequency and severity among chronic headache suffers.
6. It boosts your mood. Is it raining outside? Is it Monday? Is it any other day of the week that makes you miserable? Then you definitely need a massage. Authors of a 2005 review of studies on massage therapy found that, on average, massage increases your levels of serotonin (a neurotransmitter linked to happiness) by 28 percent and dopamine (a neurotransmitter involved in motivation, arousal, and reward) by 31 percent. Combined, this boost should pretty much make your day.
7. It reduces muscle soreness — even if you DIY, according to a recent International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy study in which adults did a whole lot of deadlifts (an exercise that seriously exhausts the back of your thighs), then either rested or used a foam-roller to self-massage the hamstrings for 10 minutes. Afterward, the group who foam-rolled reported less of the muscle soreness and pain that can interfere with things like effectively walking out of the gym and driving home without complaint.
8. It warms up your muscles before exercise. Before you stretch, massage can help to loosen the muscles without putting any strain on other soft tissues, Quince says. Try foam-rolling your quads before your next workout: Lie facedown and place the roller just above the knee cap. Let your body sink down and roll up two inches, then down one inch. Continue slowly until you reach your hip. Then turn over and repeat on your back, moving from the waist to the shoulders.
9. It helps you get to know your body — and its limits. Self-massage, in particular, can help you discover sore and tight areas in places you wouldn’t necessarily notice during regular movement, Quince says. When you’re self-aware, you can stretch more or work out different areas to allow any sore spots to heal. This can help you sidestep injuries that can ultimately mess with your mobility and overall wellness.
10. It makes exercise feel easier. Yes, you read that right. If you go into a workout with soreness, your tight muscles create resistance that makes your limbs feel heavier. “It’s like a net holding you down,” Walsh says. Massage can release the tension, so grab a foam roller and get to it until the skin covering the sore area looks rosy pink — a sign that blood is flowing there.
11. It may help put you to sleep. No more counting sheep. (As if anyone ever does that.) One small study found that a 20-minute facial massage can reduce blood pressure and increase sleepiness pretty much immediately. Researchers also tested foot massage: The treatments reduced blood pressure, just not as much as the facial massage — a fact you can easily omit the next time you ask your partner for a late-night foot rub.
12. It can alleviate morning stiffness. Most people tend to sleep in a way that strains the muscles in the neck. (If you sometimes wake up with a stiff neck, you’re probably sleeping wrong.) After the damage is done, an a.m. neck rub can help get the blood flowing, loosen up those muscles, and ultimately make mornings less painful, Walsh says.
13. It can hold you over when you’re going through a dry spell. Professional massages shouldn’t be sexual, but respectful massage therapist who provides hands-on human contact on demand provides at least one of the ingredients found in formal physical relationships: oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and orgasm. In a 2012 study, participants had significantly higher circulating levels of oxytocin in their blood after a 15-minute massage than they did before the treatment. So despite obvious boundaries, professional massages can be very fulfilling, satisfying, and sustaining, Walsh says.
14. It alleviates strain from typing and texting. If you spend most of your days on a keyboard or texting up a storm, your forearms (home to the muscles that control your hands) could probably benefit from some TLC — especially if the muscles feel tight and ropey, which is a sign that blood flow isn’t ideal. For a fast fix, grab one forearm with your thumb underneath the arm. Dig your finger pads into tight muscles in your forearm (like a claw), and rake your fingers back and forth to separate and spread the muscle fibers. This technique also feels amazing on your hamstrings: Sit on the edge of a chair and place your palms on the outsides of your thighs with your fingers underneath your legs. Apply pressure with your fingertips, and drag them back and forth across your hamstrings.
15. It improves your circulation to help you relax. Your body constantly pumps blood to and from the heart to carry oxygen to your tissues and sweep away cellular waste products. It’s tough work. According to Walsh, Swedish massage is designed to push blood from your limbs toward your heart to make things a little easier. This gives your muscles a chance to relax, so you feel refreshed when your massage is over — kind of like you just took a nap. (But obviously better.)