Everyone knows that a skilful massage can make you feel good — more relaxed, less stressed and with fewer aches and pains. But is that all there is to it? Is it just a ‘feel good’ kind of therapy? Modern research suggests there’s more to massage than you might expect — including a positive effect on the immune system.
One study of women with breast cancer showed that getting a massage three times a week for five weeks improved some aspects of immune function by 80 percent. Similar results have been shown for students receiving massage during the high stress period of mid-exams.
But can such a simple technique as massage bring about similar improvements for people with HIV? Researchers at the University of Miami School of Medicine, in Florida, USA decided to investigate.
They offered free daily massages for one month to 29 gay men (20 with HIV and nine who were HIV negative). In exchange the men agreed to give regular blood samples and to have their anxiety and stress levels assessed during the study.
On first glance there appeared to be no benefit: none of the participants had improvements in their CD4 counts. As more results came in, however, significant increases were seen in other important immune system cells.
Natural Killer (NK) cell numbers had climbed considerably. Not only that, the NK cells’ ability to do their job — attacking tumour cells and cells which show signs of infection by virusesA small infective organism which is incapable of reproducing outside a host cell. — had improved as well.
As well as this, increases in a type of CD8 cell, the cytotoxic CD8 cells, were seen. Cytotoxic CD8 cells are crucial in the body’s ability to combat and suppress HIV and, like Natural Killer cells, they kill virus infected cells. Unfortunately, these particular CD8 cells are not measured during routine blood tests.
There were other statistically significant changes. People receiving massage felt better in themselves and seemed to become less anxious and more relaxed. These changes were accompanied by a drop in cortisol. Cortisol levels rise during times of stress, causing immune suppression and other negative effects. These results led the researchers to suggest that it may be by lowering cortisol levels that massage brings about improvements in immune function.
However, a month of daily massages would be impractical for most people. Does massage on a less demanding schedule have the same benefit?
Another study at the same university tried to find out. This time they recruitedThe act of signing up participants into a study. Generally this process involves evaluating a participant with respect to the eligibility criteria of the study and going through the informed consent process. 24 HIV+ teenagers — 12 to receive massage twice per week for twelve weeks and another 12 for comparison who tried progressive muscle relaxation over the same period2.
Increases in NK cell numbers were seen for both groups. However, much to some researchers’ surprise, this time the massage group had an increase in both their CD4 numbers and the CD4 to CD8 ratio. Its difficult to suggest what may have caused the difference here. A possibility is that is was the age of the participants — young people’s immune systems are, in some ways, more robust when its comes to dealing with HIV.
The effects of massage just once per week are less clear. A 1996 trial, lasting for 12 weeks, found no effect on CD4s or NK cells3 while another trial, completed five years later, showed a clear rise in CD4 counts4.
But we don’t need to get too caught up in how-many-massages-does-it-take-to-raise-a-T-cell. Research has shown many other benefits of massage. These range from reductions in pain, swelling, anxiety, insomnia, joint stiffness, muscle spasm and skin problems to reductions in feelings of isolation and increases in body image and self-esteem5.
Massage can be especially helpful with the debilitating pain of peripheral neuropathy. Staff at New York Hospital found that, after completing eight sessions of a specialist massage program combined with self-performed home massage, most people with painful peripheral neuropathy in their feet were able to get significant pain relief6. Participants in this trial had previously tried prescribed pain medications with little success.
Clearly massage can result in many positive outcomes. But professional massage can be expensive, placing it outside the reach of most of us. The good news is that you can get some of the benefits of massage without paying anything or even going out your front door.
Continued research suggests that simple touch, not the individual massage technique, is what’s important for at least some of the positive effects. For instance, its been demonstrated that just a simple 10 minute back rub (this is just stroking with the flat of the hand in long, fairly slow strokes) brings about an effective increase in immunoglobulin A7. This chemical is made by B cellsOne of the two major classes of lymphocytes, B lymphocytes are blood cells of the immune system, derived from the bone marrow and spleen; they are involved in the production of antibodies. During infections, these cells are transformed into plasma cells that produce large quantities of antibody directed at specific pathogens. When antibodies bind to foreign proteins, such as those that occur naturally on the surfaces of bacteria, they mark the foreign cells for consumption by other cells of the immune system. This transformation occurs through interactions with various types of T cells and other components of the immune system. In persons living with AIDS, the functional ability of both the B and the T lymphocytes is damaged, with the T lymphocytes being the principal site of infection by HIV. in the immune system and helps defend all of the body’s mucous membranes from infection.
So, just lie back, relax and enjoy!
1 Ironson G; Field T; Scafidi F; et al., “Massage therapy is associated with enhancement of the immune system’s cytotoxic capacity”. Int J Neurosci. 1996 Feb;84(1-4):205-17.
2 Diego MA, Field T, Hernandez-Reif M, et al., “HIV adolescents show improved immune function following massage therapy.” Int J Neurosci. 2001 Jan;106(1-2):35-45.
3 Birk TJ; MacArthur RD; McGrady A; Khuder S., “Lack of effect of 12 weeks of massage therapy on immune function and quality of life in HIV-infected persons”. Int Conf AIDS. 1996 Jul 7-12;11(2):270 (abstract no. Th.B.4105).
4 Henrickson M., “ClinicalPertaining to or founded on observation and treatment of participants, as distinguished from theoretical or basic science. outcomes and patient perceptions of acupuncture and/or massage therapies in HIV-infected individuals”. AIDS Care 2001 Dec;13(6):743-8
5 Ruebottom A; Lee C; Dryden PJ., “Massage for terminally ill AIDS patients”. Int Conf AIDS. 1989 Jun 4-9;5:481 (abstract no. B.505).
6 Acosta AM; Chan RS; Jacobs J., “Massage therapy for the treatment of painful peripheral neuropathy in HIV+ individuals.” Int Conf AIDS. 1998;12:849 (abstract no. 42376).
7 Groer M, Mozingo J, Droppleman P, et al., “Measures of salivary secretory immunoglobulin A and state anxiety after a nursing back rub”. Appl Nurs Res. 1994 Feb;7(1):2-6.