The key to an optimally beneficial massage is the proper amount of pressure, says Field of the Touch Research Institute.
“When you get a massage, you stimulate pressure receptors under the skin, which leads to an increase in vagal activity,” she says, referring to the vagus, one of the 12 cranial nerves that emerge directly from the brain. This can produce a wide range of positive effects — including lowering heart rate and blood pressure, increasing immune function and reducing stress hormones.
“We know you need to have moderate pressure, to really move the skin, in order for all these effects to occur,” Field says. “On the other hand, light pressure is experienced like a tickle stimulus, which is an arousing, opposite effect.”
Just remember that it doesn’t have to hurt to help: “One recent study found that the combination of touching and the manipulation of soft tissues was equally effective [in terms of pain reduction for lower-back problems] whether it was through gentler Swedish massage or deeper structural massage,” Briggs says.
“A lot of people think they need deep-tissue work, but what they really want is heavy pressure, which is pressing harder as opposed to actually digging in between the muscle fibers and going down to deeper muscles,” Owens says. “Real deep-tissue massage can be a little bit painful, especially if you haven’t been warmed up properly.”
Today, massage is available everywhere from physical therapy centers and spas to strip mall chains. No matter what venue or type of bodywork you choose, it’s worthwhile to seek out a trained, licensed and experienced therapist. If you are dealing with a specific health issue, you might get a recommendation from your doctor. Overall, however, there is very little potential downside to massage, aside from minor side effects such as temporary pain or discomfort, bruising or an allergic reaction to massage oil (and, of course, the cost, which can be considerable).
“Massage has a very favorable risk-benefit ratio,” says Briggs. “Sure, occasionally somebody pushes a little too hard, but by and large we think of these as quite safe interventions.”
Sounds like an excellent excuse to indulge in a massage — or at least to persuade my husband to give better, lengthier and, above all, more frequent back rubs.