Hypertensive adults who received regular biweekly massage sessions experienced less depression and hostility and showed a decrease in measured stress-hormone levels, according to a recent research study.

The study titled “High blood pressure and associated symptoms were reduced by massage therapy” was completed in May 1999, and was conducted in conjunction with the Touch Research Institute, the University of Miami School of Medicine and Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

Thirty adults with controlled hypertension (for at least the last six months) were randomly assigned to either a massage therapy group or a progressive relaxation group.

Those in the massage group were given twice-weekly 30-minute massage sessions in the afternoon or early evening for five weeks. Massages were given on a rotating basis by various therapists. With the subject in a supine position, the therapist would massage the head and neck, arms, torso and legs with stroking, squeezing, pressing and pulling motions. With the subject in a prone position, the therapist would massage the back of the legs, and would then massage the back.

Participants in the progressive muscle relaxation group received instructions on completing self-administered, twice-weekly 30-minute exercises for five weeks. Researchers instructed subjects to only perform their session in the afternoon or early evening on assigned days to ensure compatibility with the massage group’s schedule. Relaxation sessions began with participants breathing deeply for several minutes while in a supine position with the hands alongside the body. They then followed instructions to tighten and then relax different muscles, moving upward from the feet to the head. Muscle groups included were of the feet, calves, thighs, hands, arms, back and face.
Pre- and post-treatment assessments included: a state anxiety inventory (STAI) to assess current emotions; a salivary sample to measure the levels of the stress hormone cortisol; systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure measures; the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D) questionnaire to rate depressive symptoms; Symptom Checklist-90-Revised (SCL-90-R) self-report symptom inventory of depression, anxiety and hostility; and urinary catecholamines (biologically active amines which affect the nervous and cardiovascular systems) and cortisol measurement.

Results showed that while both groups had lower anxiety levels (STAI) and lower levels of depression (CES-D), only the massage therapy group showed decreases in sitting diastolic and systolic blood pressure; decreases in salivary and urinary cortisol stress-hormone levels; and lower scores for depression, anxiety and hostility.

Researchers suggested that future studies be long-term, and examine the effects of massage on individuals who have high levels of stress.”Longer-term follow-up might also help determine whether the results reflected short-term effects or whether the results would have persisted beyond the treatment sessions,” researchers wrote. “If massage therapy can effectively reduce symptoms associated with hypertension, then it might reduce life-threatening complications, such as the risk of stroke or heart attack.”

Source: Touch Research Institute. Originally reported in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, January 2000, Vol. 4, No. 1.