Systemic Benefits of Massage Therapy


Did you know that receiving massage therapy can increase your red blood cell count and decrease stress hormones at the same time? Due to the interconnected nature of our bodies, as manual therapy is taking place a wide range of subtle yet vital benefits begin to cascade through the body. The majority of people will receive massage to aid in restoration of the muscular system or to achieve deep relation, but so much more is going on within the body as the therapy is taking place. The following article will briefly go over the individual components and functions of the systems of the human body and how massage therapy impacts them. The systems of the body are complicated and each one could have its own article explaining the way massage effects them, so consider this just a simple overview!

Muscular System

The Muscular System is the system people most commonly associate with massage therapy. The 650ish muscles of the body (some minor muscles like psoas minor are only owned by 30% of the population) are what provide our posture, strength, movement, stability, and balance in conjunction with the skeletal system. Muscles also provide 85% of the body’s heat through metabolism.

There are three types of muscles in the body: skeletal, cardiac and smooth. Involuntary actions dictated by the autonomic nervous system like heart beats, blood pressure, and rate of breathing are controlled by cardiac and smooth muscle. The skeletal muscles are controlled by the central nervous system for conscious, voluntary control. Each skeletal muscle is like a complex rubber band controlled by a nerve and given nutrients through associated vascular tissue. Massage assists the muscular system in the following ways:

  • Increasing muscular flexibility and pliability

  • Increasing muscle tone

  • Reduces the number of and intensity of muscle spasm

  • Aiding in rehabilitating with pre and post-operative massage

  • Assisting warming-up or warming-down during exercise

  • Relaxation

  • Assist healing of muscle strains

  • Enhancing posture and balance

  • Facilitating proper movement and coordination patterns

  • Releasing facial constriction

  • Managing pain

  • Stimulating circulation within the muscle

  • Aiding in removing stagnation and adhesive blocks

  • Enhancing muscle cell activity

  • Helping to facilitate waste removal in the lymph system

Circulatory System

The Circulatory System consists of the heart and blood vessels. Its task is to deliver oxygen and nutrients throughout the entire body, then transport its waste to the filtering systems, all via the blood. It is related to the spleen, kidney, and lymphatic and urinary systems, which filter and either recycle or remove waste from the blood stream. Massage affects the circulatory system by:

  • Releasing vasodilators (agents that expand the blood vessels) such as histamine

  • Increasing blood flow

  • Lowering blood pressure

  • Reduces one's heart rate

  • Increasing red blood cell count

  • Increasing oxygen and nutrient delivery.

Gastrointestinal (Digestive) System

The Gastrointestinal System is responsible for processing food and extracting its nutrients as well as the elimination of waste from our bodies. It consists of the entire tract running from mouth to anus including: esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, as well as the gall bladder, liver, and pancreas. Digestion is most active when the body is in a relaxed state so massage will very commonly incite increased gastro-activity. Massage also assists the gastrointestinal system in the following ways:

  • Releasing tension in the abdominal muscles

  • Releasing tension in the intestinal muscles

  • Reducing bloat, gas and cramps

  • Relieving indigestion

  • Improving digestion by stimulating peristalsis

  • Releasing digestive enzymes

  • Relieving constipation

  • Assisting with waste elimination

  • Stimulating liver activity

  • Stimulating kidney activity

Integumentary System

The Integumentary System consists of the body’s nails, skin, hair follicles, and some glands. It acts as the first defense between the inner body and the outside world. It also acts as a temperature regulator, a place for nutrient storage and a sensory receptor. The integumentary system is the largest organ of the body, accounting for 12-15% of the body’s weight. Massage assists the integumentary system in the following ways:

  • Assists in breaking down scar tissue

  • Removes dead skin

  • Moisturizes skin (if lotions/ oils are used)

  • Improves skin condition, texture and tone

  • Stimulates sensory receptors

  • Enhances tissue repair

  • Soothes and sedates the body through the power of touch

  • Opens the skin’s pores assisting with waste elimination

Lymphatic System

The Lymphatic System is one of the most important aspects of the body’s immunity system. Lymph, the lymph nodes, and the lymph vessels, carry fluid throughout the body and allow it to be filtered as well as recycled. This filtration keeps germs, infections, illness, disease and cancer at bay. This system also aids in absorbing fats and fat-soluble vitamins from the digestive tract. Certain massage modalities assist the lymphatic system in the following ways:

Reducing swelling and inflammation in lymph vessels

• Relieving sinus congestion

• Stimulating lymph circulation

• Rehabilitating post-injury/ post-surgical individuals

• Complementing some forms of cancer treatments

• Encourage draining of fluid and waste from the lymphatic vessels

Respiratory System

The Respiratory System absorbs oxygen and removes carbon dioxide using air that travels through the respiratory tract into the lungs. The blood of the circulatory system is then responsible for exchanging that oxygen and carbon dioxide at the cellular level. The primary breathing muscle is the diaphragm which creates the vacuum to allow air to enter the lungs. Secondary breathing muscles are located in the ribcage, abdomen and neck which facilitate creating extra space in the thoracic cavity for air to fill. All massage approaches that restore mobility to the thorax and the muscles of respiration affect the ability to breathe. Massage can restore the normal function of the soft tissue involved with breathing henceforth assisting the respiratory system by:

  • Improves lung capacity by relaxing tight or spastic muscles associated with breathing

  • Reduce respiration rate

  • Increasing pulmonary functioning

  • Correct breathing patterns

  • Promote expansion and contraction of the diaphragm muscles

  • Relieves lung congestion

Endocrine System

The Endocrine System releases hormones from glands into the bloodstream to regulate the body’s functions. Its components include the pineal gland, pituitary gland, pancreas, ovaries, testes, thyroid gland, parathyroid gland, hypothalamus and adrenal glands. Hormones control the body’s growth, mood, temperature, cholesterol, metabolism, thyroid, tissue function and more.

Massage helps to balance hormones by regulating or stimulating:

Epinephrine – impacting reactions to short-term and long-term stress, fatigue, and drowsiness

Oxytocin – impacting attachment and nurturing

Cortisol – impacting sleep, stress, and immune systems

Growth Hormone – impacting tissue repair, regeneration, healing, growth and development.

Serotonin – impacting irritability, depression, pain and behavior

Dopamine – impacting intuition, inspiration, joy, enthusiasm, focus, and attention span

When the hormones listed above are balanced it will result in-

  • a more stable mood and control over stress

  • reduced cravings

  • the reduction of pain through the release of endorphins

  • fulfilling the need for human touch

  • the increased ability to relax among other things.

Skeletal System

The Skeletal System is responsible for providing support and structure while protecting the body’s internal organs and soft tissue. It consists of a variety of different types of bones and joints, as well as ligaments, tendons, bone marrow, and cartilage. The skeletal system works closely with the muscular system to provide body movement and stability. Muscles attach to the bone in a manner that allows a person to have control over their posture and their movements, such as walking, standing and sitting. A person is born with approximately 300 bones, but by the time they become adults are left with 206 bones, since some bones have merged and grown together. Massage assists the skeletal system in the following ways:

  • Improves posture

  • Facilitates body alignment

  • Improves stiff joints

  • Reduces inflammation

  • Increases range of motion and flexibility in joints

  • Relaxes tight muscles and tendons

  • Decreases soreness and fatigue

  • Facilitates mineral retention

Urinary system

The Urinary System eliminates waste from the body, regulates blood volume and blood pressure, controls levels of metabolites, and regulates blood pH. It consists of the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and the urethra. Kidneys filter urea that is found in blood as a byproduct of metabolism, while allowing the blood to keep glucose, salts and minerals. The filtered urea is then mixed with water, excess salts and organic material to become urine. Similar to the digestive system, massage activates the urinary system. Fluids in the muscles are pushed into the lymphatic system, which is then filtered and excreted via the urinary system. Massage assists the urinary system in the following ways:

  • Aids in increasing urinary output

  • Reduces fluid retention

  • Promotes better elimination of wastes

  • Increases the efficiency of the liver

  • Increases the efficiency of the kidneys

  • Assists toxins stored in the muscles to be released

Nervous System

The Nervous System (often called the “Master System”) is the most complex system of the body. It is responsible for receiving and interpreting sensory impulses and initiating the body’s response through muscles and glands. Sensory impulses are received internally from other organs, or externally through touch, smell, taste, hearing or sight. These impulses are sent from the source to the brain; then the brain sends the body’s reaction back to the organs, glands, and muscles. The nervous system controls both the nerve network and hormonal glands.

The Nervous System is broken down into many different categories and subcategories, but for all intensive purposes this article will only highlight the Parasympathetic Nervous System because that is the state the body enters when receiving massage therapy that offers the benefits entailed in deep relaxation.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System is a part of the Autonomic Nervous System that controls the body’s unconscious functions. It is often referred to as “Rest and Digest” and it is the state our bodies are meant to be in for the vast majority of the time. This state devotes the body’s energy to regenerating at the cellular level, relaxing, and digesting, triggering a plethora of positive hormonal and nervous responses effecting all of the bodies systems (most of which have been listed above). Massage and meditation are the two most recommended ways to reach a deep parasympathetic state.

Because of the Nervous Systems roll as the “control panel” of the body, many of the benefits massage offers to it ties into other systems that have already been mentioned

Massage assists the nervous system in the following ways:

  • decreasing heart rate

  • lowering blood pressure

  • constricting pupils

  • stimulating blood flow

  • regulating digestion

  • reducing inflammation

  • enhancing release of endorphins

  • regulating mood

  • influencing dopamine to control movement and elicit emotional responses such as pleasure and pain

  • stimulating the senses (touch, hear, smell, see, and feel)

  • assisting digestive movement and secretions

  • assisting body functioning, such as respiration, perspiration, and body temperature

The vast array of benefits offered by massage therapy is what allows it to have so many niches in the health and wellness industry. Specialized forms of massage will continue to be developed to emphasis certain session outcomes, only growing more targeted and precise with time and study. There is no doubt the benefits incited by massage therapy will continue to advance as new levels of healing are discovered, but it will always remain as one of the purest forms of holistic medicine.

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