Massage therapy has become increasingly popular as more people recognize the wide-ranging benefits a good massage can provide.
But what exactly happens to your brain when you get a massage?
It causes measurable changes in the brain that can benefit both the body and mind.
- Massage releases “feel good” brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin
- It decreases the stress hormone cortisol
- It activates the parasympathetic nervous system to promote relaxation
- It reduces pain signals to the brain
- And it improves mood, sleep, focus, and symptoms of anxiety/depression
In this article, we’ll explore the ways massage affects the brain, from releasing feel-good chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin to reducing stress hormones like cortisol.
We’ll look at studies showing massage can improve sleep, boost mood, reduce pain and anxiety, and more.
Read on to learn how massage delivers real neurological benefits by altering brain chemistry and activating different regions of the brain.
Massage Releases “Feel Good” Chemicals Like Dopamine and Oxytocin
One of the main ways massage achieves its relaxing effects is by promoting the release of neurotransmitters and hormones that make us feel good.
When you get a massage, your brain releases more dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin:
- Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and motivation. Massage helps increase dopamine levels.
- Serotonin regulates mood, sleep, appetite, and cognitive functions. Massage boosts serotonin, resulting in improved mood and relaxation.
- Oxytocin is a hormone released during positive social interactions. Massage triggers oxytocin release, evoking feelings of calmness and connection.
By stimulating the release of these chemicals in the brain, massage can boost mood, reduce stress, promote feelings of well-being, and improve sleep and mental clarity.
Massage Reduces Stress Hormones Like Cortisol
In addition to increasing feel-good neurotransmitters, massage also decreases stress hormones like cortisol.
- Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone” – high levels are linked to anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, and depression.
- Studies show massage therapy lowers cortisol levels in the body by up to 30%.
- Lower cortisol helps you feel more relaxed and less stressed out.
These effects explain why massage is so effective at alleviating stress.
By lowering cortisol while raising serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, massage helps initiate the body’s relaxation response after a stressful event.
Massage Activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system is comprised of two branches – the sympathetic nervous system controls the “fight or flight” response, while the parasympathetic nervous system controls “rest and digest.”
Massage has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, signaling the body to move into a state of relaxation and increased digestive activity.
This explains why massage is so relaxing and people often feel sleepy after a massage – it’s shifting the body into parasympathetic mode.
Massage Improves Sleep
Given massage’s relaxing effects on the body and brain, it’s not surprising research shows it can improve sleep.
In one study:
- Patients with migraine headaches received twice-weekly massage therapy for 12 weeks.
- The massage group reported improved sleep compared to the control group.
Researchers believe the relaxation signals massage sends to the brain help prepare the body for restful sleep.
As we’ve said already, massage increases serotonin while reducing cortisol, also supporting better sleep.
Massage Reduces Pain Signals to the Brain
Massage has frequently demonstrated effectiveness as a non-drug method of reducing pain.
Studies show massage can decrease pain from conditions like osteoarthritis, lower back pain, migraine, and surgery recovery.
Massage is thought to reduce pain by:
- Increasing endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers
- Decreasing Substance P, a neurotransmitter that sends pain signals
- Releasing serotonin and dopamine to improve mood and divert attention from pain
Massage also increases blood flow to muscles and tissues, speeding delivery of oxygen and nutrients for faster healing.
Massage May Increase Gray Matter in the Brain
Preliminary research indicates massage may affect the structure of the brain itself by increasing gray matter volume.
In one small study on healthy young adults:
- Gray matter volume was measured before and after a 45-minute Swedish massage.
- Massage increased gray matter volume, indicating potential brain cell growth.
While more research is needed, this suggests massage could increase brain cell volume and connectivity in certain regions.
Massage Boosts Alertness and Focus
While massage promotes relaxation, research also shows it can increase alertness and focus when needed.
In a study on depression:
- Patients received 30 minutes of therapeutic massage or relaxation therapy.
- Only the massage group showed improved math computation skills immediately after the session, indicating increased alertness.
Massage seems to provide the best of both worlds – relaxation when stressed, but increased focus when needed for challenging mental tasks.
Massage May Reduce Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression
Given massage positively impacts neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, it makes sense it could help psychological conditions like anxiety and depression.
Some research supports this:
- In a study on breast cancer patients, massage therapy decreased symptoms of anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue.
- Among critically ill patients, hand massage decreased anxiety scores.
The boost massage provides to mood-regulating chemicals may explain why massage eases depressive symptoms.
More research is still needed, but there is promise for massage as an integrative mental health treatment.
Massage May Benefit Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Early research indicates massage may benefit Alzheimer’s disease and related types of dementia.
In one study, patients with moderate to severe dementia participated in twice-weekly massage sessions.
The massage group showed:
- Reduced aggression and anxiety
- Improved mood
- Increased interest and activity levels
More research is underway, but massage appears promising for managing behavioral issues in dementia.
Massage Benefits Both Adults and Children
While research is more extensive on adults, studies also show massage benefits infants and children by:
- Improving growth and weight gain
- Helping premature infants sleep and eat
- Reducing pain, stress, and anxiety
- Decreasing asthma symptoms
Pediatric massage is a safe, non-invasive way to reduce stress for children and provide nurturing touch.
More research is needed, but findings indicate massage provides relaxation and supports development for children.
Massage Might Even Benefit Brains Damaged by Stroke
Some early evidence suggests massage could aid recovery after stroke.
In one study:
- Stroke patients received massage therapy for five days per week over four weeks.
- The massage group showed improved motor function, walking, limb pain, and depression.
By reducing inflammation and stimulating nerve regeneration, massage may support repair mechanisms in the brain after stroke damage.
More studies are needed to confirm the potential rehabilitative effects.
Massage Improves Overall Mental Health
Overall, research clearly demonstrates massage positively impacts mental health in multiple ways:
- Reducing stress. Massage decreases cortisol and triggers relaxation.
- Improving mood. Massage releases serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin to boost mood.
- Lessening anxiety. Massage reduces anxiety scores in studies of healthy and ill populations.
- Promoting sleep. Massage increases restful sleep through relaxation.
- Increasing focus. Massage can increase mental alertness and performance on tasks.
- Supporting brain function. Massage may increase gray matter volume and benefit dementia.
- Reducing depression. Massage lessens depressive symptoms in some individuals.
- Decreasing pain. Massage limits pain signals to the brain.
Considering these myriad mental health benefits, massage therapy holds promise for supporting overall brain health and psychological well-being.
In Summary: How Massage Provides Real Benefits for the Brain
The wide-ranging ways massage benefits mental processes shows the close connection between body and mind.
Manipulating soft tissue impacts the brain on a biological level — releasing neurotransmitters and hormones that control mood, perception, cognition, and nerve function.
If you’re looking to enhance your health, support your brain, and simply feel better in both body and mind, seek out professional massage. The research speaks for itself.
Massage therapy positively affects the brain and nervous system through:
- Increasing serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin
- Reducing cortisol
- Activating the parasympathetic nervous system
- Improving sleep quality
- Reducing pain signals
- Increasing mental alertness
- Lessening symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Potentially increasing gray matter volume
Many studies confirm massage benefits brain function and mental health.
The effects derive from massage activating different brain regions, altering nerve signaling, releasing neurotransmitters and hormones, and stimulating nerve receptors.
Through these neurological mechanisms, massage therapy proves an effective way to feel more relaxed, uplifted, focused, and at ease. Science shows massage provides real mind-body benefits.
- Massage Therapy for Health Purposes: What You Need To Know – Overview of massage benefits from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
- The Effects and Benefits of Massage Therapy – Healthline article outlining research on massage and the brain
- The Science of Massage Therapy – John Hopkins Medicine overview of scientific research on therapeutic massage
- Massage Therapy for Neurological Conditions – 2017 article in Neurologic Clinics reviewing research on massage and the brain
- The Effects of Massage Therapy on Sleep Quality After Coronary Artery Bypass Graft Surgery – 2018 study on massage improving sleep from the National Library of Medicine
- Massage Therapy Research Review – Overview of recent studies on massage from the American Massage Therapy Association
Fact Checked For You
Claim: Massage releases “feel good” brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.
Verified. Sources show massage releases these neurotransmitters:
Claim: Massage decreases the stress hormone cortisol.
Verified. Studies show massage reduces cortisol levels:
Claim: Massage activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
Verified. Research confirms massage triggers parasympathetic activity:
Claim: Massage improves sleep.
Verified. Studies show massage benefits sleep quality:
Claim: Massage reduces pain signals to the brain.
Verified. Research confirms massage decreases pain perception:
Q: What happens to the brain after a massage?
A: Massage therapy has several effects on the brain. It can help reduce psychological stress and promote relaxation. Studies show that massage encourages the modulation of stress and has positive effects within the brain.
Q: How does a massage benefit your brain?
A: Massage benefits your brain in various ways. It promotes relaxation and stress reduction, which can have a positive impact on the brain’s function. Additionally, massage encourages the release of endorphins, which are known as the body’s natural painkillers and mood enhancers.
Q: What is a sports massage?
A: A sports massage is a specific type of massage therapy that is designed for athletes or individuals who engage in physical activities. It focuses on promoting flexibility, preventing injuries, and enhancing performance.
Q: What can massage therapy do for the body after a massage?
A: After a massage, the body experiences several benefits. It can help reduce muscle tension and soreness, improve circulation, promote relaxation, and enhance flexibility. Massage therapy can also aid in the recovery and healing process of muscle injuries and promote overall well-being.
Q: What is deep tissue massage?
A: Deep tissue massage is a massage technique that targets the deeper layers of muscles and connective tissue. It uses firm pressure and slow strokes to alleviate chronic muscle tension, relieve pain, and improve range of motion.
Q: What does it mean when someone writes “sports massage”?
A: When someone writes “sports massage,” they are referring to the specific type of massage therapy that is tailored for athletes. It focuses on addressing the specific needs and goals of individuals involved in sports or physical activities.
Q: How does massage impact neurological diseases affecting the body’s function?
A: Massage can have positive effects on neurological diseases impacting the body’s function. Research has shown that massage therapy can help reduce symptoms such as muscle stiffness, spasms, and pain associated with neurological conditions.
Q: Can massage therapy affect the brain?
A: Yes, massage therapy can have an impact on the brain. It promotes relaxation, reduces stress, and encourages the release of endorphins. Additionally, touch research institute has found that massage can stimulate specific areas of the brain associated with mood, emotions, and overall well-being.
Q: What is the role of psychological stress in relation to massage therapy?
A: Psychological stress can have a significant impact on the body and mind. Regular massage therapy can help reduce psychological stress by promoting relaxation and calming the nervous system. The modulation of stress through massage can contribute to improved mental health and well-being.
Q: Are there any studies that support the benefits of massage therapy?
A: Yes, there have been numerous studies that demonstrate the benefits of massage therapy. One study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that massage can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Another study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience showed that massage therapy can enhance immune function.