Ask Dr. Weil: Is massage for more than relieving stress?

Massage has many health benefits, including stress relief and relieving post-operative pain. Photo by Cheryl Fallstead
Massage has many health benefits, including stress relief and relieving post-operative pain. Photo by Cheryl Fallstead
Question: How healthy is massage?

I know that massage is supposed to be good for relaxation and stress relief. Are there other ways it can improve health? What type of massage is best?

Answer (Published 9/28/2006)

Massage can be wonderfully relaxing, but it does have other important health benefits and research is revealing more every year. Massage has even been found effective for the relief of pain and anxiety due to cancer. For example, in a 2004 study at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, 50 percent of patients surveyed after receiving massage therapy reported a decline in pain, fatigue, stress, anxiety, nausea, and depression. Within a 48-hour follow-up period, all of the patients who had reported improvement said that their symptoms remained better than they had been before massage. This is just one of many studies showing how massage can benefit
cancer patients. Ongoing studies are now investigating the usefulness of massage therapy for cancer-related fatigue and for improving the quality of life among both terminal cancer patients and patients with advanced AIDS.

Previous studies have found that massage can relieve chronic back pain, lessen the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, ease post-operative pain, reduce headache frequency, relieve arthritis pain, reduce blood pressure, improve immune function, reduce symptoms among children with cerebral palsy, help ease labor pain and anxiety, reduce nausea and vomiting in post-operative patients, and easesymptoms among Parkinson’s disease patients. I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture — massage has proven efficacy for reducing pain, anxiety, stress, and depression in patients with a wide range of medical problems. If you have an interest in its effects
on any specific disorder, I suggest visiting the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine where you’ll find a detailed listing of studies.

Part of the reason massage may work as well as it does is that many people expect it to. This is yet another example of the placebo effect – treatment that succeeds simply because patients believe it will.That’s fine with me — the effects are real, and the intervention has very low risk.

As you pointed out, massage is also a great relaxation method. Although I highly recommend massage and urge you to get one whenever possible, do bear in mind that it often provides short term relief of symptoms rather than lasting change. Since few of us can visit a massage therapist as often as we might like, I urge you to find some other way to unwind on a daily basis — such as breathing exercises, progressive relaxation, biofeedback, visualization, meditation, or exercise.

Dr. Andrew Weil answers a health-related question daily on his website He is the author of numerous books and articles.