In a recent study, researchers focused on the effects of massage on immune function, measuring antibody responses following hepatitis B vaccination among healthy medical students in massage and control groups. The study also looked at whether massage decreased stress, as the intervention took place prior to a stressful examination period.

The study, “Effects of Massage on Antibody Responses After Hepatitis B Vaccination,” involved 70 healthy medical student volunteers, 36 women and 34 men, ranging in age from 18 to 34 years, with an average age of about 21 years.

Participants were randomly assigned to either the massage group or the control group. Those in the massage group received a 45-minute massage once a week for four weeks, prior to the hepatitis B vaccination and the examination period.

Each intervention session followed the same 45-minute firm relaxation massage protocol, designed to induce relaxation. During the massage, subjects were prone on a massage table. Using grapeseed oil as a lubricant, the massage therapist performed 30 minutes of effleurage on the upper body, back, shoulders, neck, arms and hands. This was followed by 10 minutes of massage to the legs, then five minutes of pectoral stretching, along with shoulder and neck massage.

Before the start of the massage intervention, subjects in both the massage and control groups completed the Perceived Stress Scale, the Positive and Negative Affect Scale, and the state scale of the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, in order to measure emotional distress. All subjects also gave a blood sample, which was assessed for prevaccination antibodies to hepatitis B surface antigen.

After the four-week massage intervention and one week before the start of the examination period, participants in both groups received an intramuscular hepatitis B vaccination and repeated the baseline assessments. The subjects again gave blood samples two weeks and six weeks after the vaccination, which the researchers used to measure serum antibody responses to hepatitis B surface antigen.

Results of the research revealed subjects in the massage group did not have lower emotional distress levels than those in the control group. The findings also indicate those in the massage group had a lower antibody response to the vaccination than those in the control group, which equates to a weaker immune response.

According to the researchers, one possible explanation as to why the massage intervention did not enhance immune response may be the 45-minute duration of the massage sessions.

“Previous studies have varied considerably in the intensity of their interventions, and beneficial effects on immunity have been observed with both very limited/single session interventions and also intensive interventions,” state the study’s authors. “In contrast, medium-intensity interventions, such as in the present study, have not been found to be beneficial.

“Further research is clearly required on the intensity of massage intervention,” they continue, “to establish the dose-response relationship between massage and antibody responses to vaccinations.”


Authors: Patricia Loft, Keith J. Petrie, Roger J. Booth, Mark G. Thomas, Elizabeth Robinson and Kavita Vedhara.

Sources: Departments of Psychological Medicine, Molecular Medicine and Pathology, and Biostatistics, University of Auckland, New Zealand; Institute of Work, Health and Organisations, School of Community Health Sciences, University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. Originally published in 2012 in Psychosomatic Medicine, 74.