Massage Boosts the Immune System

Two completed research studies and one ongoing study indicate that massage therapy enhances the functioning of the immune system.

One study found that massage therapy improved immune function in HIV-positive and HIV-negative men; another study's data indicates that massage reduced anxiety in female medical students under acute stress, which in turn may have had a positive impact on immune system function; and an ongoing pilot study involving massage for women diagnosed with breast cancer indicates that massage enhances immune system function, and decreases depression and anxiety levels.

The studies were overviewed in a panel discussion during the American Massage Therapy Association's annual national convention. Research panelists said that following massage therapy, overall, study participants' disease-fighting white blood cell counts increased, which mark improved immune system function. Furthermore, regardless of whether study participant, were healthy or had compromised immune systems, massage therapy lowered stress and anxiety.

"These are the first studies that show an effect of massage therapy on an immune function test, which can support the use of massage therapy to alleviate stress, relax muscles and now possibly serve as an alternative medical practice," said Michael Ruff, Ph.D., a guest on the panel and a research associate professor with a specialty in virology and immunology at Georgetown University Medical School in Washington, D.C.

"What we're really looking at is creating a new paradigm for the practice of medicine, where massage therapy could be used in medication treatment versus just for relaxation," Ruff said.

He agreed with other panelists that many chronic diseases are stress-oriented, and that if massage therapy can lower stress, then it can directly impact and improve both the immune system and overall health.

Massage improves immune function in HIV-positive men

In what one of the lead researchers believes is the first published study involving massage therapy and its effect on the immune system, research data indicated that disease-fighting blood cells dramatically increased in both HIV-positive and HIV-negative men who had no active AIDS symptoms. Anxiety levels also decreased significantly among the participants, according to one of the researchers.

The study, conducted by the Touch Research Institute (TRI) at the University of Miami, was completed in late 1994. It was led by Gail Ironson, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Miami; and Tiffany Field, Ph.D., the director of the TRI. The $100,000 study was funded by Johnson & Johnson, which also provided start-up funds for the TRI. Results were originally published in the International Journal of Neuroscience in mid-1996.

The study was on a group of 40 men. Twenty of the participants (10 who were HIV-positive and 10 who were HIV-negative) received 45-minute daily (Monday through Friday) massages for one month, or 22 sessions. The massage protocol consisted of Swedish strokes, Trager(R) work, polarity therapy, acupressure and craniosacral therapy. A group of 20 HIV-positive men was also given 45-minute massages Monday through Friday for one month, and then a control period was added, with the men going one month afterward with no massage.

Before receiving massage, study participants filled out questionnaires reporting their demographics, any high-stress experiences within the last six months, moods and anxiety levels. Saliva was tested to measure cortisol, a stress-related hormone; blood tests were done to measure immune system function. After each massage, saliva samples were taken. Urine and blood draws were repeated, along with self-reporting questionnaires, at the end of the month-long study.

Massage, bodywork reduce academic stress

Nine female medical students facing academic exams who participated in a massage study reported significantly less anxiety, and tests revealed a marked increase in white blood cells, which fight disease.

This pilot study was designed to determine whether immunological changes might occur with massage therapy used as a stress-reduction intervention during high academic stress, according to Diane Zeitlin, a massage therapist and research associate at the Center for Research in Complementary and Alternative Medicine at Kessler Medical Rehabilitation and Education Corporation in West Orange, New Jersey. The study, funded in 1995 by the American Massage Therapy Association Foundation, was completed in spring 1996.

The data suggests that massage may enhance immune function, and that reduced anxiety might be an important mediating factor, said Zeitlin, who designed the massage protocol. Those participating were given a 20-minute familiarization massage two weeks prior to a full-hour massage, Zeitlin said. The full-body massage consisted primarily of Swedish massage strokes with light to moderate pressure, with an emphasis on promoting relaxation and increasing circulation, she said.

The students received a one-hour, fullbody massage the day before an examination that was causing them considerable anxiety. Anyone who was anxious about a blood draw, had received massage regularly or had an altered immune system was excluded from the study.

Self-reports on anxiety levels were taken, as were blood samples, both before and after the massage treatment. Immune assessments included measures that check the number and function of immune system cells.

Massage therapy shows promise as adjunctive breast cancer treatment

Preliminary findings of an ongoing pilot study demonstrate that massage decrease anxiety and lessened depression among 10 women with stage-one (diagnosed within the previous five years) breast cancer. The study will be complete when 35-40 women have participated in the study.

Measurements of immune function, which consisted of blood, urine and saliva samples, also indicated that natural killer (white) cells -- those cells that fight viruses and tumors -- also increased, which implies an improved immune system, said one of the lead researchers, Maria Hernandez-Reif, Ph.D., director of research at the Touch Research Institute.

The massage routine focused on promoting relaxation, Hernandez-Reif said, and included strokes of effleurage and petrissage, as well as range-of-motion techniques.

The average age of the 20 women (10 in the massage group and 10 in the nonmassaged control group) is 52. Seventy percent had a breast removed and the remainder had a lumpectomy.

One group had 45-minute massages three times a week over a five-week period. The control group did not receive massage. Eighty percent of those receiving massage had better immune function, while only 30 percent of those in the nonmassaged group showed improved immune function, according to Hernandez-Reif.

Those who received massage were half as anxious after massage, while those in the control group remained anxious, Hernandez-Reif said. Women who were massaged had progressive drops in their reports of depression, she noted, while those who did not receive massage reported no change in their depression over the same time period.

Article copyright Massage Magazine, Inc.

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By Melissa B. Mower

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