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Massaging Towards Social Health

Professional massages, such as Swedish, deep tissue, and trigger point massage therapy may bring peace of mind, but it is also easy to self-massage or massage a friend as well. Massage therapy can have underlying health benefits, such as reducing anxiety and chronic pain. There is also evidence of social health improvement, especially in the context of increasing attachment behaviors and trust. However, one must be careful because massage oils and incorrectly applied pressure can be harmful. When practiced safely, massage therapy can benefit both physical and social health.

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Massages are often looked to as a source of relaxation or as a good way to unwind after a long, stressful day. There are at least 80 types of massage, including total body relaxation as well as those focused on target areas. [1] Despite the complexity, massage does not always have to take long, nor does it always require professional ability - in fact, look no further than to yourself or to a friend to perform simple massages described below. Read on to find out how different types of massage may not only provide physiological health benefits, but also improve social health and bonding.


Popular types of massages


 1. DIY Massages

Eye massage

  • How to do it
  1. With eyes closed, press thumbs gently at the inner corners of the eyes and move in small circles.
  2. Slowly work towards the outer eye socket and right below the eyebrows until tension is eased. [2]
  • The benefits
    • A 2013 study published in British Journal of Ophthalmology found that patients with dry eyes had greater improvement when they received thermal eye massage in comparison to eye drops, which produced artificial tears. [3]

Hand massage

  • How to do it
  1. Relax hand, palm facing up. Rub, pull, and twist each finger gently from the palm to fingertips. Make sure not to let blood pool to the fingertips by easing up on the pressure at this part of the massage.
  2. Different lotions, oils, and creams are used for different purposes -- usually associated with the type of massage being given. They don't necessarily make the massage easier and are certainly not a requirement.
  3. Next, squeeze the fleshy part of the palm between the thumb and pointer finger in the same direction.
  4. Use your opposite thumb to massage the palm with smooth, gliding strokes. [2]
  • The benefits
    • In a 2013 review published in Association of periOperative Registered Nurses, many studies have found that when patients about to go into surgery were given hand massage, they were more likely to report reduced anxiety. [4] Hospitals sometimes use this technique as a way to calm patients down before operation.

Back massage

  • How to do it
  1. Put two tennis balls in a tube sock
  2. Lie on your back on the floor or on a mat with your knees bent.
  3. Place the sock at the base of your neck so that the 2 tennis balls are cradling your neck
  4. Slowly roll the balls down your spine while applying just enough pressure to feel a “good pain,” or a satisfying sensation that is not unbearably painful. [5]
  • The benefits
    • A 2001 study published in International Journal of Neuroscience found that lower back massages can help relieve chronic pain, increase range of motion, and improve sleep. [6]


 2. Professional Massages

Swedish massage

  • Licensed or certified massage therapists focus on the top layer of muscles, gently massaging towards the heart to improve circulation and alleviate muscle tension. [1] A 2011 study published in Acta Medica Iranica found that diabetic children had decreased blood glucose levels after receiving 15 minutes of Swedish massage. [7]

Deep Tissue Massage

  • This massage uses more intense pressure strokes to get to deeper layer muscle tension. [1] A 2008 study published in Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that overall blood pressure was reduced after one 45- to 60-minute deep tissue massage session. [8] This suggests that this may be an alternative to hypertension medicines.


Trigger Point Therapy

  • This massage falls under deep tissue therapy and is a type of myofascial release, or therapy for the tough fascial membranes that support and wrap around the muscles. [9] Myofascial muscle pain may originate in trigger points, or stiff bands of skeletal muscle, which are targeted with firm pressure in this therapy. [9-10]


Massage Safety

Although massage therapy may promote relaxation and wellness, safety precautions should be taken. Most massage techniques have low-risk adverse effects, but there are some cases where they are more severe. [11] A 2003 review published in Rheumatology found that blood pressure temporarily increased while heart rate decreased during back massage on normal subjects, thus implying that patients with recent heart attacks should monitor their heart rate and blood pressure during all back massages. [12] Though back massage is safe for the average individual, it may not be for those with pre-existing conditions. One must be careful and make sure to notify the massage therapist of all pre-existing medical conditions.


Massage Oils

Most massage therapists use safe, hypoallergenic lotions or oils, and it is not standard practice to mix in essential oils. However, non-licensed individuals self-administering massages should be wary of the effects of essential oils if they choose to use them. Adverse effects of massage oil use are rare, although high dosage may be carcinogenic depending on the type used during topical application. [11] Plant essential oils are sometimes mixed with a base massage oil and may heal wounds, help in digestion, and increase circulation by being absorbed into the blood through the skin. [11]


Massage Mistakes to Avoid

Massage pressure - A 2005 study published in Cancer Control found that massage can also be linked to bleeding if a patient has a blood clotting disorder, fracture if the patient has bone cancer, and infection if the patient has open wounds. [13] In these cases, massage pressure should be lightened, or the massage therapist should avoid the area completely. [13]


Benefits of Getting Massages:

  • on stress
    • The body may experience changes from fluctuating hormone levels during massage therapy. A 2012 study published in Alternative Therapies that was conducted at UCLA found that stress hormone levels decreased after a 15-minute upper back massage. [14]
  • On Trust
    • The 2012 Alternative Therapies study also found that oxytocin levels increased after a 15-minute massage. Oxytocin is a hormone that is associated with the feeling of trust, a stimulus that plays a role in social bonding. [14] It also may activate the immune system and mediate depression. [14] Thus, massage may strengthen social bonding as well as other aspects of health.


Benefits of Giving Massages:

  • On Attachment
    • Increased social connection between mother and infant may also result from massage therapy. A 2009 study in the Journal of Child Health Care found that when touch therapy was given to infants, which included resting and caressing touches to the torsos and heads, the mothers exhibited greater social attachment behaviors. This included measures of the mothers’ facial expressions, eye contact, and touching. [15]


  • On Anxiety
    • There seem to be health benefits on the giving side of massages as well. Massage therapists’ mental states were analyzed in a 2012 study in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, and their anxiety levels were shown to decrease after giving 1-hour Swedish massages. [16]



  1. WebMD. Massage Therapy. Accessed at http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/tc/massage-therapy-topic-overview on October 19, 2014.
  2. WebMD. Massage Therapy for Stress Relief and Much More. Accessed at http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/features/massage-therapy-stress-relief-much-more on October 19, 2014.
  3. Lee, J, et al. A randomized controlled trial comparing a thermal massager with artificial teardrops for the treatment of dry eye. British Journal of Ophthalmology. 2014; 98(1): 46-51.
  4. Brand, LR, et al. The Effect of Hand Massage on Preoperative Anxiety in Ambulatory Surgery Patients. Association of periOperative Registered Nurses. 2013; 97(6): 708-717.
  5. Medical and Sports Massage Therapy. Tennis Ball Massage. Accessed at http://massagelamesa.com/Tennis_Ball_Massage.html on October 19, 2014.
  6. Hernandez-Reif, M, et al. Lower back pain is reduced and range of motion increased after massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience. 2001; 106(3-4): 131-145.
  7. Sajedi, F, et al. How effective is Swedish massage on blood glucose level in children with diabetes mellitus? Acta Medica Iranica. 2011;49(9):592-7.
  8. Kaye, AL, et al. The Effect of Deep-Tissue Massage Therapy on Blood Pressure and Heart Rate. Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine. 2008;14(2):125-8.
  9. Mayo Clinic. What can you tell me about myofascial release therapy as a treatment for back pain? Does it work? Accessed at http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/back-pain/expert-answers/myofascial-release/faq-20058136 on October 19, 2014.
  10. Alvarez, DJ, et al. Trigger Points: Diagnosis and Management. American Family Physician. 2002; 65(4):653-661.
  11. Vickers, A, et al. Massage therapies. Western Journal of Medicine. 2001; 175(3): 202–204.
  12. Ernst, E. The safety of massage therapy. Rheumatology. 2003; 42(9): 1101-1106.
  13. Corbin, L. Safety and efficacy of massage therapy for patients with cancer. Cancer Control. 2005; 12(3):158-64.
  14. Morhenn, V, et al. Massage Increases Oxytocin and Reduces Adrenocorticotropin Hormone in Humans. Alternative Therapies In Health And Medicine. 2012; 18(6):11-8.
  15. Im, H, et al. Acute effects of Yakson and Gentle Human Touch on the behavioral state of preterm infants. Journal of Child Health Care. 2009; 13(3): 212-226.
  16. Jensen, A, et al. The Benefits of Giving a Massage on the Mental State of Massage Therapists: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2012; 18(12): 1142-1146.


By Catherine Hu, BS Candidate, UCLA 2015
UCLA Student Wellness Commission Total Wellness Magazine, Staff Writer

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