Massage lowers stress hormones


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Massage is a multi-billion dollar industry these days, as a new study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine points out. Apparently 8.3% of adults in the U.S. got at least one massage in 2007, “as a treatment for a myriad of conditions ranging from muscle aches, back pain, headaches, and insomnia, to psychologic stress, anxiety, and depression.” But does it actually do anything? It’s a very difficult topic to study, though a few researchers have started to make headway.

The new study, by researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, is an interesting one. They gave 53 volunteers either a standard 45-minute Swedish massage (using the “core massage techniques of effleurage, petrissage, kneading, tapotement, and thumb friction”), or 45 minutes of “light touch” therapy using the back of the hand. The hypothesis was that massage would lower stress hormones such as cortisol by increasing levels of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” that is involved in bonding, maternal behaviour and a host of other behaviours.

What they found was that cortisol did drop, by 32% in the massage group and 21% in the touch group — so massage was “better.” But oxytocin couldn’t explain the change — it fact, it increased more in the touch group (12%) than the massage group (9%). So the conclusion (in press reports, at least) is that “massage benefits are more than skin deep“; the paper itself concludes that “these findings may have implications for managing inflammatory and autoimmune conditions,” but not through the mechanism they originally expected.

My take: this is not surprising. I would have been astounded if massage didn’t lower cortisol levels. After all, listening to music or getting a nice compliment can lower your cortisol — but we don’t claim that these things can heal muscle pain! What’s most interesting about this study is that the controls received “light touch” therapy, which likely triggers many of the same bonding responses. This gives us the chance to see how much of the effects of massage are due to the pleasurable social/bonding interaction, and how much is due to “effleurage, petrissage, kneading, tapotement” and so on. And the differences aren’t as big as you might hope.

That being said, this study’s outcomes are mostly about general “wellness” rather than sports-related benefits — there’s nothing that tells us what’s happening to muscle fibres and so on. Still, it is (as the authors note) an important first step to separating the general benefits of having someone rub their hands all over you from the specific benefits of certain massage techniques. Hopefully we’ll see more studies like this in the future.