Massage is often applied to clients in the prone position, and this position is associated with relaxation. Previous research has shown that massage can generate a relaxation response from the autonomic nervous system. Researchers in Japan hypothesized that back massage in the prone position could alter brain activity in a part of the brain that relates to the relaxation response. “Changes in cerebral blood flow under the prone condition with and without massage” was conducted at the Hamamatsu Medical Center in Japan.

The authors of this study set out to investigate the effect of massage and the prone position on regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) in a specific region that corresponds to the autonomic nervous system. Eight adult volunteers, four women and four men, participated in the study. To measure changes in rCBF the authors used PET (positron emission tomography) scans (imaging technology that produces a three-dimensional image or map of functional processes in the body).

Each participant received four to six PET scans in the following conditions: supine at rest; prone at rest; prone with back massage four minutes into the massage; and prone with back massage 20 minutes into the massage. The massage was performed by two professional therapists from Balance Therapy University who provided palm-pressure massage onto the back muscles including trapezius, rhombodeus and latissimus dorsi for approximately 24 minutes, consecutively.

Blood flow significantly increased with massage in the prone condition compared with the supine condition, and this increase corresponded with comfortable sensation and slowing heart rate during the massage. In addition, rCBF correlated with parasympathetic function (heart rate reduction), which indicated involvement of the autonomic nervous system when comfortable sensation was observed.

The authors state that these findings “verified the efficacy of the present back stimulation to reduce mental stress or anxiety,” and that “prone posture itself can stimulate the precuneus region to raise awareness, and the light massage on the back may help accommodate the brain to comfortable stimulation.”

Source: Hamamatsu Medical Center, Hamamatsu, Japan. Authors: Yasuomi Ouchi, Toshihiko Kanno, Hiroyuki Okada, Etsuji Yoshikawa, Tomomi Shinke, Shingo Nagasawa, Keiji Minoda and Hiroyuki Doi. Originally published in Neuroscience Letters, Vol. 407, Issue 2, Oct. 27, 2006, pp. 131–135.