Very ancient therapy: massage

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

September 2009

Modern science has discovered what our Stone Age ancestors probably could have told them a few millennia ago: humans beings benefit from human touch. When the sun went down on the African savannah 100,000 years ago small bands of hunter-gatherers, with no fur and not much more hair than we have now, huddled together. Bodies touching, perhaps caressing, they relieved the stress of the day and eased the fears of the night. It worked then and it works now.

Being born is stressful. Being born too early is even more so. Today's neonatal specialists have found that mothers who are taught how to carefully and gently massage their premature infants help them to gain weight faster and to leave the hospital sooner. In one study, some of these infants weighed as little as two pounds but they suffered fewer bloodstream infections and later testing showed that they had improved developmental scores.

Sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that primarily affects African-Americans, produces episodes of pain, sometimes sudden and severe, sometimes less intense but long-lasting. Children whose parents learned how to give massage therapy on a daily basis soon suffered less pain and lower levels of depression and anxiety.

Managing chronic pain in children is difficult, partly because most drug studies are done on adults. A non-drug alternative would be welcome and massage therapy might help. Following massage therapy children of various ages with chronic pain reported improvement in mood, tension and pain levels.

Studies of adults with chronic neck and back pain reveal that massage therapy produces positive results, often lasting well beyond the treatment period. Among patients with cancer, therapeutic massage relieves pain, decreases fatigue and lessens mood disturbances.

Are you an exerciser? Although moderate exercise benefits the immune system, intense exercise has a negative effect. That depressed immune response can be reversed with massage. Athletes appreciate massage after a workout or a competitive event. Perhaps non-competitive fitness enthusiasts would benefit not only from the soothing effects of a massage after a workout, but could even get some benefits to their immune system.

There is no instrument that can measure feelings, but persons at the end of life, whether in an extended care facility or in hospice, benefit from massage therapy, showing less agitation and expressing peace of mind, making their last days more tolerable.

Scientists have opened this door just a crack but their first peek into the phenomenon is revealing. When healthy adults were assigned to either moderate or light pressure massage, both groups showed changes in the response of the nervous system. Those who received moderate pressure massage exhibited more marked changes as revealed by the electrocardiogram, slowing the heart rate.

The benefits are real, the cost is low and there are no side effects.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.