Massage Biology 101: The Science of Touch

Massage positively affects all systems in the body. The remarkable fact about regular massage is it slows down the aging process universally.I’m often asked what systems within the human body massage therapy effects. It’s a fantastic question as massage positively affects ALL systems in the body. The remarkable fact about regular massage is it slows down the aging process universally. Of course aging still occurs, but the human body ages better with regular massage than without. Below is an overview of how massage affects each system within our bodies.

The Integumentary (Skin) System & Massage

The importance of touch as an avenue for healing of the mind and body cannot be underestimated. The internal state of mind directly affects the surface of the skin, evidenced by blushing when embarrassed or turning pale when frightened. Because the skin is the largest sensor that informs the mind about the external environment, it is conceivable for techniques used on the skin to affect the mind and internal organs in various ways. This system includes skin, hair, glands, and nails. It’s purpose is to protect our bodies from environmental hazards and maintain our core body temperature. Secondarily, it helps manufacture vitamin D and eliminates waste products (via sweat, etc.).

Massage benefits the integumentary system in the following ways:

  • Skin becomes more soft and supple
  • Skin becomes more resilient, flexible, and elastic with recurrent massage
  • Massage removes dry, scaly skin – exfoliates
  • Breaks down scar tissue to free up trapped nerves, blood vessels, and lymphatics
  • Increases blood and lymph flow
  • Removes toxins
  • Quickens the healing process of injured tissue
  • Reduces pain perceived by the brain
  • Reduces stress, anxiety, and pain and increases immune function, all which relaxes the skin

The Skeletal System & Massage

Well purposed massage has the following benefits to our skeletal system.Our skeletal system is made of bones, bone marrow, and joints. As the supporting framework for the rest of our body, it protects important organs, acts as a lever by providing areas for muscle attachments, and allows movement in various planes (joints). It also manufactures blood cells, stores fat, and is our main reservoir for minerals like calcium and phosphorus. Anyone who has experienced a deep tissue massage so firm it feels as if the bones themselves are being massaged knows that is not a pleasant experience. However, well purposed massage has the following benefits to our skeletal system:

  • Facilitates breakage of cross linkages and increases range of motion.
  • Benefits those suffering from joint-related disorders such as arthritis by reducing stiffness and swelling,
  • increasing blood flow, relieves pain and muscle spasm, and mobilizes fibrous tissue
  • Decreases pain in some types of lower back issues and increases range of motion
  • May lessen the fibrosis that usually develops after injury

The Muscular System & Massage

The muscular system (muscles, ligaments, and tendons) is responsible, obviously, for any form of movement both inside our bodies and in our external environment. Secondarily, it produces heat and helps maintain our body temperature. Although massage is beneficial in treating many musculoskeletal problems, such as tendonitis, sprain, tenosynovitis, and low back pain, listed below are the five main benefits of massage:

  • Reduces swelling
  • Increases blood flow
  • Relieves pain and muscle spasm
  • Mobilizes fibrous tissue
  • Improves muscle action and induces a state of general relaxation

The Nervous System & Massage

Massage therapists are perhaps the most skilled technicians when it comes to treating neuromuscular issues.Massage therapists are perhaps the most skilled technicians when it comes to treating neuromuscular issues. Muscles and nerves have such an intimate symbiotic relationship they both go hand-in-hand (pun intended) when it comes to massage and bodywork. The brain, spinal cord, nerves, and supporting tissue coordinate the activities of all our body systems and work in the shadows undetected by us consciously, until something goes wrong. The beneficial effects of bodywork on the nervous system is undisputed, but are too complex and difficult to explain, with many aspects still a mystery. Changes throughout the nervous system could be reflex effects, such as:

  • Relaxation of muscle
  • Vasodilation
  • Changes in blood flow
  • Psychological effects – changes in mind, emotions, or behavior
  • Psychoneuroimmunologic effects – altering hormone levels and immune functions as the mind is affected
  • Sleep patterns are positively changed
  • Reduced pain by interrupting the pain-spasm-pain cycle
  • Reduces pressure on nerves by initiating a relaxation of local muscles, increasing blood flow, and removing
  • chemicals that stimulate pain receptors
  • Releases Endorphins – our natural painkillers

The Endocrine System & Massage

Our endocrine system is becoming more of a focus in our society as hormones are becoming more and more unbalanced, thyroid issues emerge, and battles rage with diabetes. Our pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal glands, and parts of the pancreas, ovaries, and testes release and transport hormones. Massage has indirect effects on this system through the nervous system:

  • Relieves stress in many ways
  • Relaxes tense muscles
  • Reduces the activity of the sympathetic nerves and the fight-or-flight reaction that occurs with stress
  • Directly affects the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal cortex axis and stimulates immune responses and healing

The Reproductive System & Massage

By now you’re seeing how massage positively changes all areas inside our bodies, including keeping our general reproductive system healthy. In Reflexology, there are specific points to help flush out the organs involved to keep things regulated. Massage in this area is focusing more and more on pre-natal, labor, and soon after childbirth work.

  • Decreases anxiety and levels of stress hormones during pregnancy
  • Less complications during labor and postnatally in women who have regular massage during pregnancy
  • Relieves the painful 3rd trimester rib pain that can occur
  • Massage during labor decreases anxiety and pain, reduces tim of labor and hospital stay, and lowers incidence of depression postnatally
  • Preterm infants gain more weight and are calmer
  • Newborns who receive massage are also calmer and show greater weight gain and more optimal cognitive and motor development later

The Cardiovascular System & Massage

Massage has a significant effect on the cardiovascular system.Our heart, blood vessels, and blood keep us alive, after all “life is in the blood,” according to Leviticus. Massage has a significant effect on this system:

  • Produces vasodilation in tissue and speeds the removal of toxins that cause aches and pains
  • Improves circulation and availability of oxygen and nutrients to the area
  • Enhances recovery after intense exercise or injury
  • Slows down heart rate
  • Decreases blood pressure and hypertension

The Lymphatic System & Massage

Our immune system is our natural body-guard. With regular global transportation it’s increasingly important to keep our body-guard strong and untouchable. Massage boosts the various functions of the immune system by:

  • Relieving stress – Science is now finding stress is literally a walking time bomb ready to explode within our bodies
  • Increases the number of natural killer cells and their activity
  • Strengthens the immune system overall
  • Significantly improves immune function in HIV-positive people and other immune-related disorders

The Respiratory System & Massage

Massage helps bring the overworked respiratory system relief.Our nose, nasal cavity, pharynx, larynx, trachea, bronchial tubes, and lungs work hard every second of our lives to bring in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Massage helps bring this overworked system relief by:

  • Slowing respiratory rate through inhibiting the sympathetic system
  • Benefits clients with breathing difficulties
  • Relieves aches and pains originating from respiratory muscles
  • Increases vital capacity and lung function by relaxing tight respiratory muscles and stretching fascia
  • Massage techniques break up postural drainage and further mobilize secretions in lungs
  • Calms asthma symptoms

The Digestive System & Massage

One wouldn’t think massage changes this system in any way but it’s true. Even the digestive system benefits through massage.

  • Promotes regular bowel movements
  • Reduces the incidence of incontinence and decreases the use of enemas
  • Relieves intestinal colic, biliary colic, and flatulence
  • Promotes secretion and digestion of food
  • Benefits disorders such as anorexia and bulimia by reducing anxiety, improving mood, and decreasing stress hormones

The Urinary System & Massage

Closely partnered with the digestive system, massage helps the urinary system in the following ways:

  • Increases urine production
  • Aids the movement of fluid from the interstitial compartment into systemic circulation
  • Decreases edema
  • Reduces pain originating from urinary tract

See you on the table!

The Massage Connection: Anatomy & Physiology, second edition, Kalyani Premkumar