illustration of viruses and cells

Massage therapy helps build a healthy immune system, as research indicates.

Share this information with your clients, in your newsletter and social media, to educate them on the benefits of your massage therapy. They will need healthy touch soon, once the pandemic is over and your practice is back online.

Editor’s note: A healthy immune system is important at any time. This article is not suggesting that massage therapy, or any other known health care practice, can prevent coronavirus (COVID-19) or any other illness.

Health Benefits of Regular Massage

The health benefits of massage are well-known, and according to the Mayo Clinic include the treatment of soft tissue strains or injuries; headache relief; and help with digestive disorders.

“Massage is also great to increase circulation within the body, which improves tissue quality and allows people to move and function better,” Kipp Dye, MSPT, owner of OrthosportsMED Physical Therapy, told MASSAGE Magazine.

Crucially, massage therapy also relieves pain, which can significantly affect your immune response. Research confirms that pain has a significant immunosuppressive effect on the human body. Scientists have also found strong evidence that pain reduces the levels of important parts of the immune system that deal with infection and even help fight cancer.

Massage Improves Our Ability to Fight Disease

Clinical research also suggests that regular massage naturally increases the healthy immune system’s ability to kill certain cells, while decreasing the number of T-cells, for an improvement of the body’s overall immune function.

In this study, 20 HIV-positive men received five 45-minute massages per week, for a month. The participants showed both an increase in serotonin and in the cells that comprise the immune system’s initial defense against infection and disease.

“Theoretically,” said Dye, “[massage] allows for faster recovery due to increased circulation of the lymph and blood vascular systems,” said Dye.

Pregnant Women Experience Immune Benefits

A randomized controlled trial involving 52 healthy pregnant women examined whether aromatherapy massage offered immune-boosting benefits.

The women were split into two groups: one receiving 70 minutes of aromatherapy massage with 2% lavender essential oil every other week, the other no massage at all.

Researchers found that the group receiving aromatherapy massage showed significantly reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and improved levels of other immune markers.

According to researchers, this study presents evidence that aromatherapy massage could significantly decrease stress and enhance immune function in pregnant women.

“The findings can guide clinicians or midwives in providing aromatherapy massage to women throughout the pregnancy,” the study’s authors wrote.

Even One Session Boosts Immune Function

Recent research from Cedars-Sinai finds that people who undergo even one session of massage experience significant changes in their immune and endocrine responses. The researchers compared the effects of either a 45-minute session of Swedish massage or light touch.

Participating massage therapists were trained in the delivery of Swedish and light touch using “specific and identical protocols.”

“Massage is popular in America, with almost 9% of adults receiving at least one massage within the past year,” said Mark Rapaport, MD, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences and lead study author, said in a statement.  

He emphasized, “People often seek out massage as part of a healthy lifestyle but there hasn’t been much physiological proof of the body’s heightened immune response following massage until now.”

Blood samples were collected at various intervals before and after each session, and researchers found that those who received Swedish massage experienced observable changes in lymphocytes, which play an important role in a healthy immune system that protects us from disease.

The Swedish massage group also had decreased levels of arginine vasopressin (AVP), a hormone associated with increased stress hormone (cortisol) levels, and a decrease in inflammatory cytokines, which are produced by infection-fighting white blood cells.

“This research indicates that massage doesn’t only feel good, it also may be good for you,” said Rapaport. “More research is ahead of us but it appears that a single massage may deliver a measurable benefit.” 

Does Massage Help Fend Off Cold or Flu?

Does this mean a relaxing massage session can help reduce your risk of catching a cold or flu?

Massage offers relaxation and stress relief, and when people are less stressed, they’re much less likely to fall ill. This is because chronic stress impairs your body’s inflammatory immune response, increasing your susceptibility to infection, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Massage Has Immediate Benefits to a Healthy Immune System

Researchers recruited 34 post-surgery breast cancer patients, diagnosed with stage 1 or 2 breast cancer, to a massage therapy group receiving 30-minute massages three times per week for five weeks, or a control group.

On the first and last day of the study, participants were assessed for both their psychological state and levels of immune system markers in their urine samples.

According to the study findings, immediate effects of massage therapy included reduced anxiety levels, depression and anger, while longer-term benefits showed direct impact on the body’s immune markers — such as increased dopamine, improved serotonin values and better lymphocyte levels.

The researchers concluded that breast cancer patients experience significantly improved immune, NK-cell (natural killer cell) and neuroendocrine function after receiving massage therapy.

Massage and the COVID-19 Crisis

“There is still so much unknown about the coronavirus, but having a healthy, functioning immune system will always be helpful in reducing the effects of the virus, if contracted, and, could possibly be helpful in prevention of even contracting the virus at all,” said Vicky Karr, LMT, a CE provider and owner of Spa Success.

“Because massage therapy aids in improving the immune system, it is generally assumed that it could help reduce the risk of coronavirus infection,” she added.

However, according to Karr, because of the close bodily proximity between “a massage therapist and their client,” all of us should be following the “social distancing” guidelines that have been put into place, and not seek massage therapy until the pandemic has subsided.

Even after the pandemic is over, Karr emphasizes the important of frequent hand-washing — and that whenever you’re not feeling well, the best course of action is always to reschedule a massage appointment.

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About the Author

George W. Citroner is a freelance health journalist and author who covers breaking news in medicine and health for a broad range of publications. His articles for MASSAGE Magazine include “Bill Introduced to License Minnesota Massage Therapists.”