Areview of more than 30 studies on the biochemical effects of massage therapy shows that massage can produce beneficial levels of certain hormones and neurotransmitters in the human body.

Researchers from the Touch Research Institutes examined research on the stress-alleviating effects (evidence by decreased cortisol) and the activating effects (evidenced by increased serotonin and dopamine) of massage on a variety of medical conditions and stressful experiences.

“Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy” is a review of studies on: depression, including that resulting from sex abuse and eating disorders; pain syndromes; autoimmune conditions, including asthma and chronic fatigue; immune-system diseases, including HIV and breast cancer; and job-, age- and pregnancy-related stress.

Treatment in all of the studies consisted of massage therapy sessions of at least 20 minutes each that were administered at least twice a week during the study period. In all of the studies, levels of cortisol, serotonin and dopamine were measured either in the saliva or in the urine of the subjects.

In studies in which cortisol was measured, an average decrease in cortisol levels of 31 percent was noted. Cortisol is a product of the sympathetic nervous system, is produced following periods of stress, and can have negative effects on immune function.

In studies in which activating neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine were measured in urine, an average increase of 28 percent was noted for serotonin and an average increase of 31 percent was noted for dopamine. Serotonin and dopamine reduce depression and stress.

This review suggests that the positive effects of massage therapy can be generalized across many conditions. The authors conclude that massage therapy consistently yields positive effects on medical conditions, although the underlying mechanisms for these effects are as yet undetermined.

Source: Touch Research Institutes, University of Miami School of Medicine, Miami, Florida; Department of Pharmacology, Duke University Medical School, Durham, North Carolina. Authors: Tiffany Field, Maria Hernandez-Reif, Miguel Diego, Saul Schanberg, Cynthia Kuhn. Originally published in International Journal of Neuroscience, Vol. 115, No. 10, October 2005, pp. 1397-1413.