We've all seen it on TV or in a movie. The scene is tense and the patient is doing poorly. The doctor calls out urgently. Retractor! Scalpel! Suction! Massage Table!
Wait a minute .... Massage table?
Did Dr. House ever scream for body oil?
The good news is this: if you enjoy a massage, you just might be helping your heart and arteries stay healthy and youthful.
Scientific studies have shown benefits of massage therapy for insomnia, multiple sclerosis, anxiety, cancer pain, post-operative recovery and other conditions.
Several recent studies point to benefits of massage therapy that help heal the heart.
In 2008, researchers studied 263 volunteers who had a massage for 45 to 60 minutes. Average blood pressure fell by 10 mg Hg and heart rate by 10 beats per minute after one treatment. That's about as much as you might get from prescribing a new blood pressure medication for life!
Earlier this year, 50 people with mildly elevated blood pressure received a 15-minute massage, three times a week for 10 sessions, while a similar group just relaxed for the same amount of time. Blood pressure fell at the end of the sessions and remained lower for several days—but only in the massage group.
Another study this year examined 8 women with high blood pressure who'd had an hourlong massage each week for four weeks. At the end of that period, their blood pressure fell by 12 mm Hg systolic (top number) and measurements in the blood reflecting inflammation (specifically VCAM-1 if you like science) fell significantly. A control group just rested for the same amount of time and had smaller improvements in the same measurements. The drop in markers of inflammation is intriguing and suggests massage therapy may have a body-wide healing effect.
Why might massage therapy result in improvements in measurements of cardiovascular function?
Reductions in salivary and urinary levels of the stress hormone cortisol have been observed in several experiments in humans. In contrast, urinary levels of the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine were not seen to fall during several studies.
Bottom line: not yet completely known and studies remain to clarify these pathways.
Is it time to chuck your blood pressure medication? Throw away your magnesium, CoQ10 and taurine blood pressure lowering supplements? Forgo your plant-based diets full of phytonutrient-rich leafy green vegetables and arginine rich pine nuts, arugula and watermelon?
No, it's clearly premature to consider massage therapy on par with those approaches. Furthermore, there are no studies showing a reduction in heart attack, strokes, and heart related deaths—and likely never will be due to the costs of such research projects.
However, given that tens of millions of people in the US alone grapple with high blood pressure, massage therapy can join acupuncture, yoga, meditation, and Tai Chi as complimentary approaches to maintaining optimal vascular health.
Buddha said that “to keep the body in good health is a duty, otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.”
Maybe this is the week to schedule a massage treatment to move toward that goal?