What Can Chinese Massage Therapy Do For You? We Investigated

mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor By Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor
Alexandra Engler is the Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department.

Image by Lumina / Stocksy

The benefits of massage have long been documented. One of the most oft-cited studies shows that massage can decrease cortisol (the stress chemical) by an average of 31%, and increased serotonin and dopamine by around the same amount (31% and 28% respectively).

For this reason, massages have long been used as part of physical therapy practices and holistic medicine. And one of the oldest versions is Tui na, or what is often called "Chinese massage" colloquially in Western culture.

What is Chinese massage?

"The term 'Chinese massage' is a misnomer because there's no such thing called that in traditional Chinese medicine, and it's not really a 'massage' in the purest sense either," says Eastern medicine expert Daniel Hsu, DAOM, L.Ac. "What it really is, is Tui na or 'push-and-pull.'"

And as Hsu notes, it is more accurately described as therapeutic Asian body work, and it involves twisting, pulling, turning, pushing, kneading. ("It's not just about relaxing the muscles or relaxing someone from stress," he says.)

As it falls under the umbrella of traditional Chinese medicine, of which acupuncture or herbology are other modalities, it uses a lot of the same principles. "There's a wide range of knowledge base that falls under TCM, and all these different techniques are how you heal the body." Today, it's pretty widely accepted as an alternative or complementary treatment to a variety of ailments.

Tui na follows acupressure points, which are the same as acupuncture points. The points are targets along the body that are around clusters of nerve endings, mast cells, lymphatics, and capillaries, all capable of triggering biochemical and physiological changes in the body. (You've likely heard chi referenced with these. It's roughly translated to "energy," but in modern practice it's a metaphor for these metabolic functions.)

"When you work these points, be it with acupressure or acupuncture, two main things happen," says Hsu. "You are creating endogenous opiate release, so you are making your body release its own naturally occurring and created 'feel-good' chemicals, like serotonin, dopamine, and opiates. And the second is down-modulation of sympathetic upregulation, which basically just means you are turning down your fight-or-flight response."

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What are the health benefits?

There are many positive outcomes from Tui na, some of which have been studied, here.

Eases pain

A few studies have been done on the therapy's effect on pain, from the neck to lower back. Anecdotally, this is one of the most common reasons for people to seek TCM or Tui na. One study showed that a group of patients with chronic neck pain improved greatly with regular treatments over a period of a few weeks. Another showed that people had less back pain when they received Tui na in conjunction with core exercises. And another focused on carpal tunnel syndrome, where study participants successful recovery rate reached 81% when combined with acupuncture.

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Faster injury recovery

Massage therapy is often used alongside physical therapy to aid in the recovery process. One study showed that when applied to skeletal muscle after injury, it reduced inflammation, which resulted in better recovery speed and performance.

Improves balance

In one study, patients with Parkinson's (a disease that often causes sufferers to have impaired coordination, resulting in imbalance and frequent falls) showed that after three months of regular practice, their overall performance greatly improved—even more so than the groups in the study who practiced strength training and stretching.

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Increases circulation

"When you push and pull, you are telling the body to bring more blood to the area," says Hsu. "And when you do this correctly, your blood pressure goes down, not because there is less fluid in the system but because your arteries expand." And a small recent study shows that a specific technique—Yi Zhi Chan Tui na—can indeed improve circulation in patients.

What are the techniques?

A highly trained practitioner will be able to use any of the following to target concerns. They will do so with different intensities and orders.

  • Palpating (mo)
  • Rejoining (jie)
  • Opposing (duan)
  • Lifting (ti)
  • Pressing (an)
  • Kneading (mo)
  • Pushing (tui)
  • Holding (na)
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Is acupuncture involved?

"I am a practitioner, and I have a bag of tools, and to heal someone I can use any number of those tools," says Hsu. Obviously acupuncture is a major part of TCM, so they often are used in conjunction with one another. And depending on your practitioner's diagnosis and recommendation, you might have a combination of these two, with additional TCM modalities. But they can be used independently. So, if you do not want to try acupuncture ("Maybe someone is afraid of needles," says Hsu), but your practitioner feels you might benefit from the principles, then Tui na might be for you.

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