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Health benefits of massage: The Optum Store Guide

9 minute read
Woman getting a massage

Did you know that massage therapy can improve pain, reduce stress, help you sleep better and more? We answer all your questions about the health perks of massage, why you might want to try it and which type to choose.

Stacey Colino

By Stacey Colino

You’re stressed by your busy schedule. Or you’re tense from huddling over your laptop for hours on end. Or maybe you’re sore from a killer workout. If you’re thinking that a massage might be just what the doctor ordered, you’re on the right track.

Once an exclusive offering at spas, massage has entered the health care system in recent years. There’s no question that a massage is a great way to relax and pamper yourself. But beyond just making you feel good, it can also be good medicine for your body and mind, as research shows. Massage therapy has been used in various forms throughout human history, and it’s now considered a form of complementary medicine.

Take a closer look at what massage therapy is and how it can benefit your body and mind. Then learn about the different types of massage you might want to try.

What is massage therapy?

It’s a technique in which trained specialists use their hands to manipulate the soft tissues of the body. This includes the muscles, tendons, ligaments and connective tissue. Using different degrees of pressure and movement, a massage therapist can help to:

  • Improve blood flow in your body
  • Relax physical tension
  • Ease pain
  • Reduce psychological stress
  • Promote better sleep
  • Treat injuries

The practice of massage dates back thousands of years. Today, it’s one of the most used integrative medicine techniques. In 2018 alone, 47.5 million people in the U.S. had massage therapy, the National Holistic Institute reports. And more than half of them got their most recent massage for health and wellness reasons, according to the American Massage Therapy Association.

What are the overall physical benefits of massage therapy?

Massage therapy is probably best known for easing muscle tension and soreness. But that’s just the starting point. It can increase circulation (the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients in the blood) throughout the body.

It also helps the lymphatic system carry excess fluid and waste products away from tissues. The pressure relaxes the autonomic nervous system (the part of your nervous system that controls involuntary movement such as digestion and heart rate). This in turn decreases your heart rate and blood pressure and lowers levels of stress hormones.

Massage also stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, which has a calming effect on the mind and body. And massage therapy can improve your ability to move your body by helping to relax tense or knotted muscles and stretching them out.

What are some specific physical benefits of massage therapy?

Besides reducing overall stress and relieving muscle pain, massage therapy can also target specific physical ailments. Here is some research you should know about:

Massage therapy helps with pain relief.

This includes achiness due to a variety of conditions, such as low-back pain, neck and shoulder pain, headaches, arthritis of the knee, fibromyalgia and labor pain. Research has shown that a massage can reduce pain intensity in people with chronic tension-type headaches.

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It can enhance recovery from exercise.

One of the most dreaded aftereffects of an intense workout is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). These are the aches and pains you feel a day or two after you exercise too hard or use new muscle groups. Massage can help prevent or reduce DOMS, according to a 2020 study in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine. In addition, research from the University of Illinois Chicago found that massage therapy improves blood vessel function for muscle pain caused by exercise.

It can improve sleep quality.

This may be partly because having a massage can decrease your levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and increase levels of serotonin and dopamine (chemical messengers in the brain that improve mood). Research has shown that massage therapy can also have a positive effect on sleep patterns in postmenopausal women.

It helps relieve fatigue.

Because it boosts circulation, massage can help people feel more energized and invigorated. But it can ease fatigue in other ways, too. A 2018 study in the journal Cancer found that 6 weeks of Swedish massage therapy relieved cancer-related fatigue among breast cancer survivors. And a 2021 study found that people with gastrointestinal cancer who received a foot massage during chemotherapy felt less tired afterward.

Keep in mind that while benefits from massage therapy sometimes kick in immediately, other times it takes longer to notice results. For example, improvements in circulation and an easing of tense muscle fibers may happen right away with massage therapy. But relieving chronic pain may require regular sessions for weeks or months. It might also take longer to see improvements in posture and mobility.

What are the psychological benefits of massage therapy?

For starters, massage is a welcome form of touch therapy, and it can help you relax and improve your mood. Research has found that massage increases the secretion of endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. All of these are feel-good brain chemicals. Massage also ups your levels of the hormone oxytocin. Aside from its calming effect, oxytocin plays a role in helping you trust and bond with other people. Here’s a closer look at some of the psychological perks massage can offer:

Massage can relieve stress and anxiety.

The human body has 2 nervous systems: sympathetic and parasympathetic. What’s the difference? The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight-or-flight response in stressful situations. The parasympathetic nervous system leads to rest and relaxation. Massage therapy is believed to increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system. That can decrease stress and anxiety. In a 2020 study, researchers found that people with anxiety disorder had a reduction in their symptoms after 6 weeks of Swedish massages. (Learn about more mindfulness practices that can reduce stress.)

It may alleviate symptoms of depression.

Research has found that massage combined with psychotherapy may help pregnant women who have mild depression. And several studies suggest that massage therapy may relieve symptoms of depression, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

It can boost your energy.

A 2018 study compared the effects of Thai massage and Swedish massage on relieving fatigue and low energy. Researchers found that both can improve these symptoms by releasing stress, promoting relaxation and relieving muscle aches and pains. Swedish massage was better at relaxing people and improving their sleep. But Thai massage was better at boosting energy levels.

What are the different types of massage therapy?

The kinds of massage therapy abound. Each has a slightly different focus or takes a varied approach. You may prefer one over another based on your personal preferences, medical conditions, goals and other factors. Here’s a brief overview of the most common forms:

Swedish massage.

This is often the go-to form of massage for relaxation. It involves long, fluid strokes. The therapist will also knead, roll, press, squeeze and make deep circular movements using light to firm pressure. The therapist uses their hands, forearms and elbows to apply pressure. It’s generally a full-body massage. The goal is to relieve muscle tension and improve circulation. This is what people think of as a classic massage.

Stone massage.

This form of massage therapy involves applying 2 sets of stones to the body during a session. One set of stones is heated, and the other is chilled. First the stones are placed on your back, palms, between your toes, and on your neck and shoulder area. Then the therapist does a massage therapy treatment that may include Swedish, shiatsu, deep tissue or other technique. Stone massages are meant to relax you, improve circulation (with the heated stones) and relieve inflammation (with the cool stones).

Deep tissue massage.

As the name implies, deep tissue massage aims to work on the deeper layers of muscle and fascia (connective tissue) in the body. Sometimes a therapist will use firmer pressure to reach these areas. Other times, deep tissue massage involves gentle but sustained pressure aimed at the myofascial layer. As a result, deep tissue massage is often used to:

  • Treat musculoskeletal conditions
  • Ease various forms of pain
  • Improve range of motion after an injury
  • Relieve stress

Shiatsu massage.

Developed in Japan, shiatsu is a style of massage that relies on applying pressure from the fingers and palms to points on the body. The goal is to promote the flow of energy and correct imbalances in the body. Shiatsu is used to relieve stress, treat pain and illness, and enhance your overall health and well-being.

Trigger point massage.

With this technique, the focus is on releasing “trigger points,“ which are small, painful knots or spasms that develop in muscles. These trigger points can cause pain in other parts of the body (known as referred pain). A massage therapist tries to release the spasm or knot by applying focused pressure with small strokes to trigger points. Unlike a massage for relaxation, the trigger point technique doesn't involve a full-body massage. Be warned that it can feel a bit uncomfortable.

Sports massage.

This form of massage is a targeted approach that realigns and loosens tight muscle fibers in athletes. It can also be used to improve posture and muscle flexibility, treat or prevent sports injuries and help you perform better.

Prenatal massage.

During pregnancy, a woman’s body undergoes a wide array of changes that can give rise to uncomfortable symptoms such as nerve impingement, fluid retention and breathing difficulties. Prenatal massage typically uses gentle pressure to:

  • Alleviate back and neck pain
  • Ease swelling
  • Release tight muscle tissue
  • Ease insomnia
  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Improve mood

It’s usually performed while a mother-to-be lies on her side.

Thai massage.

During a Thai massage, the client remains fully clothed and lies on the floor on top of a mat. The therapist uses the feet, elbows, hands and knees to compress and stretch the body while the client practices breath work. It’s almost like a combination of massage, yoga and passive stretching. The goals are relaxation, increased range of motion and pain relief.

What are the potential risks of massage therapy?

Most people can benefit from massage therapy, but having certain medical conditions may make it risky. Check with your doctor first before scheduling any kind of massage therapy if you have:

  • A bleeding disorder (or you take blood-thinning medication)
  • A low platelet count
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Severe osteoporosis
  • Burns, wounds or skin infections that are healing

What are some options for home massage devices?

There’s a variety of DIY devices for massage. They range from percussive massage guns and vibrating devices to foam rollers, acupressure mats and massage chairs. The main benefit of these products is that you can have them on hand whenever you need some relief for tight or sore muscles. Plus, experts say that using them between visits to a massage therapist can help you maintain the progress you’ve made.

Check out our selection of percussive massage guns at the Optum Store. We have you covered.

How do I find a good massage therapist?

Word of mouth is a good way to find a reputable massage therapist. So reach out to your friends, neighbors or family members for recommendations. If you’re looking for a massage therapist for a specific medical condition, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor for a referral.

Keep in mind: Many states require massage therapists to get a license or certification. They must also have a certain number of hours of training before they practice massage. Before you book an appointment, ask about the therapist’s training, experience and credentials.

Our expert panel

Stephanie Agakian-Colón, licensed massage therapist at Bodhi Body Studios in Broomfield, Colorado

Shannon Mouser, licensed massage therapist, co-founder of Viva Day Spa + Med Spa in Austin, Texas

Karen Stoner, licensed massage therapist in State College, Pennsylvania

Robert Thomas, lead certified massage therapist with MassageLuXe in Irvine, California

Additional sources

General massage statistics: Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (2019). “How Many Massage Therapists Are There in the U.S.?“
Health massage statistics: American Massage Therapy Association (2022). “Massage Therapy Industry Fact Sheet“
Massage and muscle recovery: BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine (2020). “Effect of sports massage on performance and recovery: a systematic review and meta-analysis“
Fatigue and cancer: Cancer (2018). “Massage Therapy Decreases Cancer-Related Fatigue: Results from a Randomized Early Phase Trial“
Fatigue and cancer: Supportive Care in Cancer (2021). “The effect of massage therapy on fatigue after chemotherapy in gastrointestinal cancer patients“
Stress reduction study: Complementary Therapies in Medicine (2021). “Six versus twelve weeks of Swedish massage therapy for generalized anxiety disorder: Preliminary findings“
Depression: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (n.d.): “6 Things to Know about Massage Therapy for Health Purposes“