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We often seek massage to relieve us of some pain, usually from muscle soreness. Yet it can also be used to address more complex chronic-pain conditions.

Some of massage’s capacity to reduce chronic pain stems from its effects on anxiety and depres­sion. “Chronic pain is a marriage between the mind and body,” says massage therapist Nell Rueckl, founder of Spot Spas in Minneapolis, noting that cortisol plays a role in both mood and pain perception. Because massage can lower cortisol levels and enhance dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, pain is reduced, along with stress and anxiety.

Massage also lowers the production of a neurotransmitter called substance P, which influences pain perception. Decreasing substance P levels appears to dampen sensations of pain.

One meta-analysis that reviewed studies of patients with fibromyalgia found that those who received massage therapy regularly for five weeks or longer saw immediate beneficial effects on their pain, anxiety, and depression.

Another study evaluated the effect of massage therapy on pain in an acute-care setting. Following a 30-minute massage, patients’ reported pain levels had fallen by more than half. Participants also noted improvements in emotional well-being, relaxation, and sleep.

Gate-control theory may also explain why massage alleviates pain: The nerve fibers that sense pain are shorter than those that sense pressure and temperature. Massage stimulates these larger, pressure-sensitive nerves, whose messages out-race the shorter nerves’ pain messages to the brain and then close the gate behind them.

Daws notes that trigger-point therapy and shiatsu are two forms of massage particularly well-suited to easing pain. Both release stuckness or areas of tension in the body and improve circulation.

This was excerpted from “Hands On” which was published in the November 2021 issue of Experience Life magazine.

Mo Perry

Mo Perry is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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