Getting in Touch With The Science Behind Massage
Has your healthcare professional ever recommended massage therapy to deal with a chronic health condition or injury?
According to recent statistics, more and more healthcare professionals are recommending massage therapy as part of their treatment plan, with a whopping 63% of consumers getting a massage for health and wellness reasons.
But are there really any science-backed benefits to today’s most popular massage therapies? And how can we distinguish the real deal from just surface touch?
A hands-on tool for relaxation, healing, and beauty?
In many ways, massaging our bodies is an instinctual action, something we do without thinking to manage everyday muscle soreness and ease our pain after a hit or a fall. Kneading sore muscles and bruised skin works because of how our pain and pressure receptors operate: When we apply pressure to an injured area, our pain reception is somewhat overridden by our pressure receptors, briefly masking the pain.
At the same time, massage therapy can be beneficial in managing stress and promoting relaxation, as studies have found that patients’ cortisol levels (the so-called “stress hormone”) are reduced significantly right after getting a massage. Moreover, massage therapy has been associated with short-term improvements in patients’ mental health, especially when it comes to easing anxiety.
But here’s the most glaring issue: All the studies we have so far only show short-term mental health and pain management benefits, while the effects of long-term massage therapy are yet to be backed by science. A Swedish massage might provide short-term relief for chronic conditions like lower back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis-related joint pain, but there is no consistent literature proving its efficacy as a long-term treatment method. Even sports massage, designed to aid muscle recovery and ease the effects of DOMS (“delayed-onset muscle soreness”, muscle pain that follows a workout) doesn’t have strong scientific evidence.
Contrary to popular belief, deep-tissue massage won’t help you “flush” lactic acid and get rid of metabolic waste faster — in fact, it does the exact opposite.
But what about the type of massage therapy that focuses on our face and promises to keep our skin looking younger and healthier?
Facial massage and the Gua Sha craze
In recent years, the western world has embraced facial massage, especially the traditional Chinese practice of Gua Sha, as an integral part of holistic beauty routines.
As a non-invasive, simple, and inexpensive method, facial massage techniques are gaining a lot of traction on social media, promising to deliver glowing skin, reduced puffiness, and even slimmer jawlines. The simplest facial massage involves dragging your knuckles from chin to temple, or using your index fingers to apply gentle pressure around your nose in a downward motion. Gua Sha can also be performed with a tool designed to make the job easier, and this is where the industry has found its goldmine: Gua Sha has become synonymous with sleek rose quartz massage tools, all sold for a pretty penny.
So, are the benefits worth the price?
The goal of traditional Gua Sha is to irritate the skin and produce blotchy red spots, as a means to stimulate blood flow and cell regeneration. In the western world, the technique has added lymphatic drainage, youthful glow, and even facial sculpting to its list of beauty claims.
But as we’ve seen with the case of sports massage and DOMS, there’s no scientific evidence connecting massage with stimulating lymphatic drainage and flushing out waste product. The gentle to moderate pressure we apply with a quartz tool or with our knuckles is also very unlikely to stimulate blood flow in a significant way.
What Gua Sha methods can do is help give your skin a very short-term boost, decreasing morning puffiness and promoting a more “awake” look with a short-lived boost in microcirculation.
Beyond surface touch
While massage therapy is far from a new idea in the wellness world, integrating massage into an ongoing treatment or even a standard beauty routine is a relatively modern concept, and a popular one at that.
Yet, there is still no strong evidence supporting long-term healing or beauty boost as a result of any massage therapy.
So why do we still get massages, and why are more and more healthcare professionals recommending massage therapy to deal with pain and mental health issues? The most likely answer is that short-term benefits, no matter how minor or short-lived, are still valuable when they come from an inexpensive and non-invasive method. Kneading your jawline before applying skincare is a tiny, simple action that can improve facial tone for mere minutes, but still make you feel like a million dollars.
The relaxation you get after an oil massage is fleeting, but it can help start the day with the right mood and mental energy. Chronic pain sufferers are not necessarily looking for a cure in their therapeutic massages, but they’re looking for accessible and meds-free pain management options.
The growing popularity of Gua Sha and massage therapy proves that, despite the lack of long-term benefits, massage still has a place in the beauty and wellness world — without the need for expensive crystal tools!