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here's what happens to your body after a massage
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7 Surprising Things That Happen To Your Body After A Massage

There’s a reason you might feel fatigue.

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The concept of a massage can be kind of weird if you think about it. At face value, you take off your clothes (to a level of your own comfort), lie down on a table, and let a stranger rub the stress out of your body for an hour. Despite the odd setup, it’s no secret that massages are a super effective way to destress, and the physical and mental benefits are worth any potential momentary awkwardness for many people. But what do we actually get out of the experience, and what happens to your body after a massage?

Although massages are fairly common — about 25% of men and 21% of women in the U.S. got a massage in 2021, according to an annual industry report by the American Massage Therapy Association — not many people know about the actual reasons they make your body feel so good. And oftentimes even what you thought you knew about massages isn’t actually the case. “Many of the things that most people think massage does are incorrect,” Beret Loncar, licensed massage therapist and owner of Body Mechanics Orthopedic Massage in NYC, tells Romper. “That is because most of what we are taught in school and [what] is advertised on many reputable websites is not accurate. Misinformation is pervasive.”

Time for some major massage myth busting here. “For example, massage does not break up scar tissue or increase circulation,” Loncar says. “Scar tissue has a tensile strength that it would be impossible for us even to approach changing, and while massage probably affects local circulation, the only way to really increase circulation is to raise your heart rate — and massage lowers it.” So, what is it that massages do then?

As it turns out, the effects on your body are more than just what you can feel immediately; some of the impacts can last long after the actual session. Read on for some of the weird and interesting ways your body and brain responds to a professional massage.

1

Your stress levels decrease

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Massages are designed to relax you, but it's surprising to discover they can actually influence how much stress you're carrying in your body. In fact, a 2020 study published in Scientific Reports measured and confirmed that even just 10 minutes of massage is psychologically and physiologically regenerative, as it was shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

It was long surmised that the reason massages reduce stress is due to a decrease in cortisol — the main stress hormone the human body produces. However, the answer doesn’t look to be that simple. “The truth is [that] the direct effect on cortisol is pretty minimal, and there is not a lot of research to support that statement,” Loncar says. “Just because the felt benefit is not cortisol-specific does not mean it is not valid; it just means the proposed mechanism is wrong. More research is needed to figure out exactly why massage helps you manage stress and anxiety and what direct chemical effects are at play. The body is complex.” Though we may not know the exact how and why yet, it’s definitely the case that massages help reduce stress and anxiety, especially over time.

2

Your heart rate will lower

Relatedly, massages have been shown to decrease blood pressure and heart rate, both of which aid in greater cardiovascular recovery. “A typical Swedish massage generally lowers your BP and heart rate, sending you into a biological state of 'rest and digest,' which helps you regulate your autonomic nervous system, aka stress,” Loncar says. “This state is also the state where we do our tissue repair.” Moreover, a 2021 study conducted by researchers at Harvard and published in Science Translational Medicine found that massages were shown to speed muscle recovery and that there is a clear connection between mechanical stimulation (massage) and immune function.

3

You can alleviate pain

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The point of a massage is to get your body to relax. However, it has been shown to do more than help you just chill out. “Massage can also help you mediate pain,” Loncar says. “Provided it is done correctly, and the massage is not too deep or creating pain itself [...] massage can be an excellent pain reliever.” A 2016 meta-analysis published in Pain Medicine concluded that based on the compiled evidence, massage therapy should be strongly recommended as a pain management option.

Pain and tension relief is a huge reason why postpartum massages are becoming more and more popular. “New parents want to feel relief in muscle tension,” Susan Scarpinito, a postpartum massage therapist with Purusha Wellness, previously told Romper. “Postpartum massage offers relief [from] the strains of newborn care on stretched, weak, imbalanced joints and muscles, most found in the neck and pectoral girdle, and [it] can facilitate emotional adjustment.”

That being said, it likely won’t be a replacement for any pain treatment, but rather a helpful addition. “Most people might think of massage as a luxury, but for many people, it can be a management option that helps them use less medication,” Loncar says. “Always talk to your doctor about this option, and never quit medications without their consult.”

4

You might get a headache or feel queasy

Everybody is different, and though massages overall have a positive effect, some folks will have different reactions based on a multitude of factors. It’s not uncommon to feel things such as dizziness, headaches, fatigue, and soreness after a particularly deep massage. “Simple answers are things like 'your massage was too deep,' causing you to brace and overly taxing your body,” Loncar says. “Very deep massage can actually do tissue damage, which means your body will have to manage the waste products that occur from it as well as have to do some repair work.”

Remember, as Loncar emphasizes, a massage does not need to hurt to be effective. That being said, baroreceptor changes (sensors in your body that help measure blood pressure) may also play into these less-than-ideal post-massage feelings. “When we go into rest and digest, the blood moves towards the organs to digest and away from the extremities ⁠— but the area we are stimulating on the skin with massage, the sensory aspect, probably draws the blood closer to the surface briefly,” Loncar explains. “You might see this expressed as the skin pinking up in your massage. These kinds of complex functions can make us feel some interesting things because your body is working!”

If you do feel strange or unwell after a massage, definitely communicate that to your massage therapist. “The ‘no pain no gain’ rule is a myth in massage,” Loncar continues. “Of course, there is always [the possibility] that some unknown quantity will result in a poor reaction, but no one wants that, and massage therapists do their best to avoid it if given the chance.”

5

You build sensory awareness

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Massage by definition involves touch. Through that facet alone, you actually work on your sensory awareness, paying attention to how each touch makes you feel. “Many people with trauma of different kinds actually self-select into massage therapy treatment as a safe way to experience touch,” Loncar says. “There is also most likely a very complex sensory awareness process happening, akin to a sensory meditation while you are being massaged. Focusing on sensations in your body can be very good for the mind.”

6

You can help regulate your emotions

Though massages come in a physical form, they have long-term emotional and psychological effects as well. “Because stress, anxiety, and pain directly affect mood, managing these things can be a mood enhancer,” Loncar explains. “Your brain and your body have to work together, like it or not, and so treating your body right can make your brain happy. The limbic system and the amygdala is the part of the brain that regulates your emotions.”

7

You can catch certain health conditions early

When you receive a massage from a licensed therapist in most places, you are seeing a health professional who has received some training in pathology, the study of the causes and effects of disease and injury. “They can help you catch health conditions before you might be aware of them and refer you to the correct medical provider,” Loncar says. “We absolutely cannot diagnose, but we can advise that you should seek more help. Over the course of my career, I have caught and referred out skin cancer in its early stages, deep vein thrombosis, anxiety disorders, heart conditions, and pelvic floor issues.”

Overall, massages have been shown to positively affect bodies in many different ways, especially when administered by licensed professionals. “Everyone likes a good rub, but [you should always] choose a licensed massage therapist over someone who is unlicensed,” Loncar says. “Well-trained therapists will consult with you before your session to help navigate the complexity.”

Just keep in mind that everyone will experience massages uniquely. “Each person has their own individual health history, sensory sensitivity, brain chemistry, hormonal balance, blood pressure, and underlying health conditions,” Loncar says. “You can expect everyone's response to massage to be a little different.” Though you may not realize it while you are relaxing on the massage table, the reasoning behind that relief — in terms of both stress and pain — you feel is pretty cool when you look into it. Plus, it just feels fantastic!

Studies referenced:

Meier, M., Unternaehrer, E., Dimitroff, S.J. et al. (2020). Standardized massage interventions as protocols for the induction of psychophysiological relaxation in the laboratory: a block randomized, controlled trial. Sci Rep 10, 14774. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-71173-w

Seo, B.R., Payne, C.J., McNamara S.L., Freedman, B.R., et al. (2021). Skeletal muscle regeneration with robotic actuation–mediated clearance of neutrophils. Science Translational Medicine, Vol 13, Issue 614. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.abe8868

Crawford, C., Boyd, C., Paat, C. F., Price, A., et. al. (2016). The Impact of Massage Therapy on Function in Pain Populations-A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials: Part I, Patients Experiencing Pain in the General Population. Pain medicine (Malden, Mass.), 17(7), 1353–1375. https://doi.org/10.1093/pm/pnw099

Experts:

Beret Loncar, licensed massage therapist and owner of Body Mechanics Orthopedic Massage in NYC

Susan Scarpinito, postpartum massage therapist with Purusha Wellness

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