White blood cellsMassage is used for many health purposes, but little is known about how it works on a biologic level. A study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine examined the effects of one session of Swedish massage therapy — a form of massage using long strokes, kneading, deep circular movements, vibration, and tapping — on the body’s hormonal response and immune function.

Funded in part by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCAM), researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, randomly assigned 53 healthy adults to receive one session of either Swedish massage or light touch (in which the therapist used only a light touch with the back of the hand). Both interventions lasted 45 minutes and were performed by a licensed massage therapist.

The purpose of this study was to determine the effects of a single session of Swedish massage on neuroendocrine and immune function.

Blood samples taken before and after the sessions were used to determine blood levels of certain hormones and circulating lymphocytes (white blood cells).

The researchers found that participants who received Swedish massage had:

  • a substantial decrease in arginine-vasopressin (a substance which produces an anti-diuretic hormone that makes the body retain fluid).
  • a decrease in the stress hormone, cortisol.  (Too much cortisol production shuts down the immune system.)
  • an increase in circulating white blood cells (which tackle bacteria and other foreign matter).

These preliminary data led the researchers to conclude that a single session of Swedish massage produces measurable beneficial biologic effects on the immune system that could have implications for managing inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.

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