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Massage and Sleep

Are you looking for new ways to move past your sleep troubles? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that a third of US adults get less than the recommended amount of sleep. Even worse,  chronic lack of sleep can increase a person’s risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, mood disorders, or even heart disease.

The good news: getting a regular massage might be one solution to sleep troubles — and an enjoyable one at that. For example, one study conducted in China found that 76% of people treated regularly with massage therapy no longer experienced symptoms of insomnia.

Also, dozens of independent studies found that massage can improve sleep for people with a wide variety of medical ailments, including more common complaints such as lower back pain and migraines.

Find out if massage is the right solution for your sleep woes. This article explores the different kinds of massage therapy and provides information to help you decide which could be the best fit for you. Wave goodbye to restless nights, and say hello to deeply relaxing and fulfilling massages instead.

What Is Massage Therapy?

Massage therapy is a treatment in which a professional applies pressure and movement that affects the soft tissues of your body. The body’s soft tissues include muscle, connective tissue, tendons, ligaments, and skin. Depending on the type of massage therapy you select, you can expect everything from kneading and long strokes to vibration, tapping, and application of warmth.

Massage is an age-old practice with roots in ancient China, India, and Greece. Each of these ancient civilizations developed and practiced massage as a medical treatment with a wide range of techniques. They documented their practices in writing and also had schools to teach their craft.

Although these cultures practiced different variations of massage, the end result often included the same benefits seen today: decreased muscle tension, stress, and pain, and increased comfort and overall feeling of well-being.

As the word and magic of massage has spread, modern western civilization has come to embrace massage both for its health and recreational benefits. Research estimates that massage therapy was a $18 billion industry in the US in 2018.

Finding a massage therapist is easier than ever. Doctors’ offices, private in-home practices, on-demand apps, fitness centers, spas, and vacation experiences all offer opportunities to try massage for yourself.

The reasons for massage popularity are clear. Many people find massage therapy to be an enjoyable experience. Additionally, studies have demonstrated how powerful massage can be to improve symptoms of serious conditions.

Surveys show how popular massage has become. Nineteen percent of adult Americans report having received a massage in the past year, while 31 percent state they have received a massage in the past five years.. The following chart displays reasons people gave when asked why they sought out massages. Medical reasons were the number one reason.

Source: American Massage Therapy Association

Of course, there are many different types of massage. Different people seek out different types of massage therapy with specific ends in mind. And even though massage is generally safe, people with specific conditions should avoid massage practices that could exacerbate their problems.

This guide, explains how massage works. It also contains information about  moments when you shouldn’t use massage therapy to try and improve improve your condition.

How Does Massage Work?

Massage is done with you in mind. The goal of massage is generally to improve your health and well-being, or even just help you feel more relaxed.

Some massage therapists will go out of their way to create an ambiance that sets the tone for an enjoyable experience. They may accomplish this through relaxing music, dimmed lighting, and pleasant scents.

You can expect a consultation with your massage therapist when you make an appointment. They’ll ask if you have any particular pains or past ailments they should be aware of before they start.

Once the general consultation is over, many therapists provide you with a space to remove your clothing so they can better massage you. When this happens, they will leave the room and allow you to change. More often than not, you’ll have a cloth or towel to cover you so you’re not fully exposed.

After that, you’ll spend between 30-90 minutes of massage either on a massage chair or a massage table. When the session is over, the massage therapist will leave the room so you can re-dress by yourself.

If you’re not comfortable with removing your clothing for a massage, don’t worry. Some types of massage actually occur with clothing. Or, you can bring up this concern to your massage therapist and they’ll find a way to accommodate you.

What Conditions Can Massage Help Treat?

In addition to anecdotal evidence supporting the benefits of massage, there are a wealth of studies that demonstrate the link between massage and decreased pain and symptoms for various conditions.

Studies have shown that massage can help improve symptoms for a wide range of conditions, including…

How does massage positively impact so many different health conditions? One key: multiple studies have shown that massage therapy reduces cortisol levels and increases oxytocin levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that supports your “fight-or-flight” response. When your body is exposed to it long-term, you may experience anxiety, depression, sleep problems, weight gain, and even heart disease.

Oxytocin, on the other hand, is known as the “love” hormone. The human body releases oxytocin during sex, orgasm, and child birth. Oxytocin is also increased when humans bond both with each other both romantically and socially. Massage therapy has also been found to increase other feel-good chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine.

It stands to reason that many of the studies on massage and chronic health conditions demonstrate positive results because of the impact massage has in terms of cortisol, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine..

For example, one study of children going through chemotherapy showed the children who received regular Swedish massage had less painful and less frequent bouts of vomiting.

Another study showed that children with autism experienced increased oxytocin levels after regular massage. They also slept better and had fewer night awakenings.One study showed that massage therapy helped hospital patients cope with both the emotional and physical aspects of pain.

Even if you don’t experience chronic illness, massage is an excellent option for improved well-being or relief from pain.

Is Massage Therapy Safe?

Massage therapy is generally a safe practice that benefits its recipients. However, if you have certain ailments or conditions, or if you’re unlucky enough to encounter a poorly trained practitioner, you could have a negative massage experience.

For your health, you should make sure the location where you receive your massage is hygenic and includes proper and safe equipment. Your massage room should be contain sturdy massage equipment and freshly cleaned towels or sheets

Potential adverse side effects of massage include discomfort and soreness during the first few days following the massage. About 10 percent of massage recipients report experiencing these symptoms.

Massage therapists often recommend drinking large quantities of water to help reduce after-massage soreness, but that practice hasn’t been researched. A very small number of people experience headache, bruising, and fatigue after massage.

Only receiving massages from certified therapists might help reduce the chance of experiencing side effects. Certified massage therapists generally have to go through academic study, supervised training, and a requisite amount of practice hours to obtain their license. Most states have massage therapy license requirements, with exceptions.

Unfortunately, Kansas, Minnesota, Wyoming, and Vermont don’t have any certification laws on the books. However, you should still be able to find someone who has verifiable certifications regardless. If not, look elsewhere so you don’t risk injury.

Of course, there is the off chance that your massage can go awry even if you book an appointment with a certified massage therapist. For example, one study showed that cancer patients risk more adverse side effects than massage recipients without cancer. Massage that involves spinal manipulation has a higher risk of adverse effects, though the overall risk is still low.

Expecting mothers can also benefit from massage. Most experts agree that massage is safe at any stage of pregnancy. Studies show that massage during pregnancy can reduce depression, anxiety, and pain, and lead to shorter labor times. However, all pregnant women, especially those with high-risk pregnancy concerns, a recent organ transplant, or high blood pressure should consult their doctor before scheduling a massage.

Although massage is generally safe, it’s important that clients research different massage types to ensure they pursue the massage type that’s most beneficial for their particular situation. For example, people with lupus should probably avoid deep tissue massage.

What Are the Different Types of Massage Therapy?

Most of us are familiar with the image of a traditional massage table and oils. However, there are dozens of variations, sometimes even within one subset of massage.

Different massage variations and methods are called modalities. Modalities have been developed to target specific problems or areas of concerns to get tailored results. We don’t list all the modalities here because there are so many, but below are 11 popular modalities that you can commonly find.

Not every modality is made for every person, but that’s why it’s so great. You can find something tailored to both your personal needs and philosophy.

1. Aromatherapy Massage

Aromatherapy massage integrates essential oils into the massage experience. The use of essential oils dates back thousands of years.

Blending these two elements together promotes relaxation and may invigorate or energize you, depending on the types of scents your massage therapist chooses. Many therapists will consult with you first to learn which kinds of essential oils you prefer. Aromatherapy massage has been found to boost immunity and reduce pain.

2. Craniosacral Therapy

For those looking for a gentle and non-invasive experience, craniosacral therapy may be the right fit. If you’re shy about taking off your clothes in front of a stranger, all the better. Practitioners of craniosacral therapy will often massage you fully clothed, with light and still movements.

Craniosacral therapy has been shown to be effective in treating neck pain.  Unlike many traditional massages which either use a chair or a massage table, craniosacral sessions often start in a massage chair first and then move to a massage table. The therapist will also check in with you during the massage to make sure they’re giving you the right level of touch.

3. Deep Tissue Massage

Deep tissue massage focuses on relieving severe muscle tension. It’s especially effective if you have musculoskeletal disorders, postural problems, or chronic muscle pain and tension.

If you want to pursue deep tissue massage, ask the massage therapist in advance to describe what that term means to them because it is an unregulated term. “Deep tissue massage” and “deep massage” are sometimes used interchangeably, or used with no set definition.  Researchers suggest that “deep tissue massage” is a specific technique, and “deep massage” is any technique used by a massage therapist intending to affect deep body tissue.

4. Hot Stone Massage

Hoping for some novelty in your massage experience? Hot stone massage stands out from the rest. The massage therapist places hot stones on your body and often uses them to give the massage. The effect allows the therapist to go deeper while still using lighter pressure. Sometimes they incorporate cold stones as well.

The heat of a hot stone massage is a great way to loosen muscle tension and increase relaxation. Hot stone massage sessions often complement a regular massage experience and don’t exclusively use stones throughout the duration.

5. Myofascial Release Therapy

Fascia is a connective tissue that holds all your organs, arteries, bones, and muscles together. Myofascial massage is designed to manipulate that connective tissue. Healthy fascia should feel soft and flexible. During a session, a therapist will locate areas on you that feel stiff and apply manual pressure. This helps improve restricted movement. Myofascial release therapy may also target trigger points and use stretching to help relieve pain.

Although more research is needed, studies suggest that myofascial release therapy can relieve pain. People suffering from myofascial pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, migraine, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and other chronic pain disorders are often the primary clients that seek out this type of massage.

Myofascial release therapy is also sometimes called “trigger point massage therapy” or “trigger point release therapy.” Tools and instructions are available to guide patients who want to self-administer myofascial release therapy, and research suggests that self-administered myofascial release therapy is also effective in reducing pain.

6. Pregnancy Massage

Pregnancy isn’t easy, and massage can help ease pregnancy-related aches and pains. Getting a massage during your pregnancy has many benefits such as reduced depression and anxiety, reduced leg and back pain, a lowered risk of premature labor, and shorter labor times..

It isn’t feasible for pregnant women to lie on their stomachs for a massage, especially after the first trimester. For this reason, pregnancy massage uses different positions, such as lying on one’s side, to accommodate the pregnant shape. Although the practice is considered safe, it’s best to find a therapist who is certified in prenatal massage.

7. Reflexology

Reflexology complements holistic health practices and became popular in the United States around the 1930s. The practice that involves acupressure applied to the hands and feet. Studies suggest that reflexology may provide health benefits, though more research is needed.

According to the Reflexology Association of America, these techniques stimulate neural pathways and support optimal functioning of the body. Reflexologists use techniques such as thumb and finger walking to stimulate reflex points on your feet, often corresponding to a related organ. This type of massage could be a good fit for you if you enjoy foot massages.

8. Reiki

Reiki has its origins in 1800s Japan, where Dr. Usui popularized the practice and taught it to his students. Technically, reiki is not a form of massage therapy because it doesn’t actually involve working tissue. Instead, practitioners gently place their hands above or on your body to transmit warmth and energy. Many reiki practitioners are certified in massage as well and provide a treatment that combines both techniques, however.

Research suggests that reiki promotes healing by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Many people who attend reiki sessions report feeling slight tingling or heat coming from the practitioner’s hands, which culminates in a sense of relaxation and wellbeing. It’s a gentle and non-invasive practice that won’t leave you feeling sore the next day.

9. Shiatsu

Shiatsu is a form of massage similar to but distinct from acupressure. Shiatsu integrates emotional, physiological, and spiritual well-being. For centuries, Japanese practitioners paired shiatsu with herbalism and acupuncture to help relieve the pain of their clients. Since then, shiatsu has become more of a practice of its own, with about half a dozen variations. Research suggests shiatsu might help with pain, nausea, and sleep issues.

You can find therapists who specialize in barefoot shiatsu, healing shiatsu, or movement shiatsu, just to name a few. For example, barefoot shiatsu involves powerful yoga-like stretches to unwind tightness, while healing shiatsu integrates mindfulness and meditation.

10. Sports Massage

Athletes work their bodies hard, which is why there’s an entire industry around specifically-tailored sports massage. You may take advantage of a sports massage before, during, or after athletic events. This helps relieve performance-related pains, promote flexibility, and even ward off potential injuries.

Massage therapists often combine massage techniques, such as deep tissue massage or acupuncture, to tailor to the athletes’ particular needs.

11. Swedish Massage

In the western world, Swedish massage is generally known as the “traditional” or default massage style. If you’ve gotten a massage before, you likely experienced something similar.

A Swedish massage therapist usually applies kneading, stroking, and friction to loosen muscular tension and increase blood circulation. The therapist uses massage oil to ease the hand strokes and movements. Before you start, expect a consultation to ask about your health and lifestyle and if you have any particular tough spots or areas to avoid. Swedish massage usually takes place on a massage table and lasts between 35-60 minutes.

These 11 practices are  highlights of the massage therapy world, but by no means do they cover all forms of massage therapy. With options ranging from lymph drainage to rolfing, there’s likely a modality to address your needs.

Where Can You Receive Massage Therapy Treatment?

Once you’ve decided which modality of massage best fits your needs, it’s time to find a massage therapist. A wide range of facilities provide different massage modalities, specialties, and overall experiences.

As always, it’s important to verify you’re visiting a qualified professional who is licensed and trained to perform massage therapy. Here are a few places you can find a quality massage:

  • Spa – Spas are one of the most classic spots to get a massage, and for good reason. They usually offer a wide range of modalities that you can also pair with other luxurious treatments such as facials, manicures, and steam rooms.
  • Licensed Massage Therapist Office – Attending the dedicated office of a licensed massage therapist is a sure-fire way to know you’re getting high-quality service. Although they’re not a spa, most provide a relaxing ambiance with pleasant lighting, sounds, and smells.
  • Chiropractor – Some chiropractors combine their practice with massage, whether they do it themselves or partner with a licensed and trained colleague. These two forms of therapy are known to pair well together, and often provide a powerful combination of muscular and skeletal benefits.
  • Physical Therapist – A trained and certified physical therapist will be most likely to tailor their massage therapy practice to your medical needs, especially if you need to heal from an illness or injury. You may find them in private practices, hospitals, or at in-home visits.
  • In-Home/On Demand – Just as Uber has increased private drivers on the road, so have apps brought massage therapists right to client’s doors. You can find licensed and certified in-home practitioners through certified state board websites, or through apps.
  • Cruise Ship – Cruise ships are big hubs for the massage industry, and many offer a wide range of services. However, proceed with caution: many massage therapists have told tales of back-to-back massages for hours without breaks, resulting in stressed out practitioners and lower-quality service.
  • Gym – Premium gyms want to provide you with the best perks, and that often means massage therapists on-site. These therapists will likely specialize in physical therapy and sports massage, though some gyms are more spa-like in nature.

Massage Therapy and Sleep

Research demonstrates that massage can improve many health conditions. Of course, many health problems are deeply tied to poor sleep as well. Acute and chronic pain can disturb regular sleep patterns, cause fitful sleep, or even cause increased anxiety and insomnia.

The increased levels of oxytocin from massage can help improve sleep levels indirectly. Several studies have shown that people suffering from painful and even serious conditions saw better sleep after a regular massage routine. For example, one study found that back massage was both a safe and cost-effective way to improve sleep among patients with congestive heart failure.

Another study found that massage therapy reduced fatigue and improved sleep patterns of people recovering from heart bypass surgery. Participants found that not only did they sleep better, but pain in their back, chest, and shoulders decreased significantly in only a matter of days with regular massage.

Yet another study conducted in Brazil found that massage therapy helped insomnia symptoms in postmenopausal women. Researchers found that massage had the potential to work well in conjunction with hormonal therapy, and may even have the potential to act as a stand-in to prescription medications.

A different independent study conducted in Iran found that the link between sleep disorders and breast cancer in women significantly reduced with regular massage. As with women managing symptoms of menopause, researchers suggested this could be a viable alternative to taking medications.

Studies show that massage can improve sleep for people with serious conditions such as breast cancer and congenital heart failure. It is likely massage therapy is therapeutic for people with less serious illnesses as well.

Massage is an age-old technique that can positively impact your sleep, health, and overall well-being. If you haven’t tried it, now is a good time to decide which modality sounds best for you and begin searching for a qualified practitioner.

If the first type of massage therapy you try isn’t ideal, don’t give up. Sometimes massage therapy clients have to experiment before they find the best modality and therapist for their unique body, preferences, and needs.

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