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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 result in diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, or even heart disease.

The good news: getting a regular massage might just be the answer — 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.

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

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

What is Massage Therapy?

Put simply, massage therapy is a treatment that manipulates the soft tissues of your body using varying degrees of movement and pressure. However, the practice of massage therapy is much more nuanced than that.

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, Egypt, Japan, and Greece. Each of these ancient civilizations developed and practiced massage as a medical benefit through 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 was often the same: decreased muscle tension, stress, and pain, and increased comfort and overall feeling of wellbeing.

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 $16 billion industry in the US in 2017.

And finding a massage therapist is more widely available than ever: doctors’ offices, private in-home practices, on-demand apps, and vacation experiences all offer an opening to try it for yourself.

The reasons for massage popularity are clear: besides the obvious recreational benefits, studies have also proven how powerful massage can be to improve symptoms of serious conditions. In fact, about 19% of adult Americans received at least one massage over the period of one year — and most did so to reap the health benefits.

Of course, no two massages are quite alike. They’re custom tailored with specific ends in mind. And even though it’s generally safe, people with specific conditions should avoid massage practices that will exacerbate any current problems.

Throughout this article, we’ll break down how massage works, along with the exceptional moments when you shouldn’t use massage therapy to improve your condition.

How does it work?

Massage is made with you in mind — to improve your health and wellbeing, 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, they leave the room so you can re-dress by yourself.

If you’re not comfortable with removing your clothing for a massage, not to 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?

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that supports the benefits of massage. But if you’re looking for more serious evidence, there are a wealth of studies that demonstrate the link between massages and decreased pain and symptoms for various conditions.

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

Chronic conditions:

  • Hypertension
  • Asthma
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • HIV
  • Dementia
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Insomnia
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • High blood pressure
  • Digestive disorders

Various health problems:

  • Back pain
  • Soft tissue injuries
  • Migraines
  • Chemotherapy-related nausea

Mental health:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Stress

So, how does massage make a positive impact on 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. Besides its regular positive side effects, its presence has been shown to benefit people with autism, social anxiety, schizophrenia, and post traumatic stress disorder.

It stands to reason that many of the studies on massage and chronic health conditions demonstrated decreased cortisol and increased oxytocin in patients, allowing them to feel less painful symptoms and heal more quickly.

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.

And even if you don’t experience a chronic illness but are looking for improved wellbeing or relief from pain overall, massage is an excellent option. One study showed that massage therapy helped hospital patients cope with both the emotional and physical aspects of 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 — your massage experience can quickly go south.

For your health, you should make sure the location where you receive your massage is hygenic and includes proper and safe equipment. Nobody wants to lay down on a flimsy massage table.

Adverse side effects of massage that are more run-of-the-mill include muscle pain and soreness during the first few days following the massage. However, you can often avoid this by seeking out a certified and trained massage therapist.

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, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Vermont, Kansas, and Wyoming 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 have a certified massage therapist. For example, one study showed that cancer patients risk more adverse side effects than non-cancerous massage recipients. Spinal manipulation has also produced more adverse risks, though it is still considered generally safe.

And expecting mothers can definitely benefit from a massage — however, they may risk an increased likelihood of miscarriage during a first trimester massage. Pregnant women with high-risk pregnancy concerns, a recent organ transplant, or high blood pressure should also tread carefully when considering a massage.

It’s important to research different massage types if you have a specific medical condition you’re trying to treat. As we explore more in the following section, for example, people with lupus should probably steer clear from a 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, massage doesn’t fit into just one category. There are dozens upon dozens of variations, sometimes even within one subset of massage.

These different variations and methods are called modalities. Modalities have been developed to target specific problems or areas of concerns to get tailored results. We won’t list all the modalities here because there are so many, but below you’ll find 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 to ancient Egypt, where they often gave scented massages and aromatic baths.

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. For example, cypress is believed to relieve muscle pain, whereas tea tree is used to support the immune system.

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.

Specialists in this area believe that light touch helps restore the central nervous system and improve irregular sleep patterns. And 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. Massage therapists often use their knuckles, hands, and elbows to really dig in.

Avoid deep tissue massage if you have inflamed joints or ailments like lupus, because the vigorous nature of the massage could worsen a flare-up. Another important note: deep tissue massage shouldn’t be confused with deep pressure massage. While deep tissue focuses on layers of muscles and fascia, deep pressure massage focuses on the entire body.

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 the your body and often uses them to give the massage. The effect allows the therapist to go deeper while still using lighter pressure.

And of course, the correct level of heat is a great way to loosen muscle tension and increase your levels of relaxation. Hot stone massage sessions often complement a regular massage experience and don’t exclusively use stones throughout the duration.

5. Myofascial Massage
Despite its potentially misleading name, myofascial massage isn’t actually related to your face. It’s related to fascia, a tissue that holds all your organs, arteries, bones, and muscles together. Myofascial massage is designed to manipulate that connecting tissue. During a session, a therapist will locate areas on you that feel stiff and apply manual pressure. This well help improve restricted movement. Myofascial massage may also target trigger points and use stretching to help relieve pain.

6. Pregnancy Massage
Pregnancy is no walk in the park, and massage can help ease those aches and pains. Getting a massage during your pregnancy has all kinds of benefits including hormone regulation, improvement of nerve pain, reduced swelling, reduced back and joint pain, and even better sleep.

Of course, you likely won’t be able to use a typical massage table and lay on your stomach, especially after the first trimester. Pregnancy massage uses different positions to accommodate your shape. Although the practice is considered safe, it’s also 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.

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. Unlike most of the massage types listed here, using reiki doesn’t actually involve working tissue. Instead, practitioners gently place their hands above or on your body to transmit warmth and energy.

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 physical therapy that integrates emotional, physiological, and spiritual wellbeing. For centuries, Chinese 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.

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. Sport 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 sport 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’ and sports’ particular needs.

11. Swedish Massage
It may be near the bottom of the list, but that doesn’t mean it’s unpopular. The Swedish massage is actually known as the “traditional” massage. If you’ve gotten a massage before, chances are high you experienced something similar.

A traditional 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, you should expect a consultation to ask about your health and lifestyle and if you have any particular tough spots or areas to avoid. This massage will take place on a massage table and usually lasts between 35-60 minutes.

The practices listed above are the highlights, but by no means do they cover all forms of massage therapy. From lymph drainage to rolfing, there’s just about every kind of massage therapy under the sun 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 where to get one. A wide range of facilities provide different modalities, specialties, and overall vibes.

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 an office with a licensed massage therapist is a sure-fire way to know you’re getting high-quality service. Although they’re not a spa, most still include a relaxing ambiance with pleasant lighting, sounds, and smells.
  • Chiropractor – Some chiropractors combine their practice with massage, whether they do it themselves or have 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 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 like Zeel brought massage therapists right to people’s doors. You can find licensed and certified in-home practitioners through certified state board websites, or through apps as well.
  • 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 — that often means massage therapists on-site. These therapists will likely specialize in physical therapy and sport massage, though some gyms are more spa-like in nature.

Massage therapy and sleep

As you’ve seen in the prior sections, massage can improve all kinds of 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 extend into conditions like increased anxiety and insomnia.

For that reason, 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.

And 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.

What’s more, 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.

The studies send quite a clear message: if massage can improve sleep for people with such serious conditions as breast cancer and congenital heart failure, it only makes sense it could help people with less serious illnesses as well.

Massage is an age-old technique that can make a deeply positive impact on your sleep, health, and overall well-being. At the end of the day, it’s about finding which modality is the right fit for you.

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