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Sure, treating yourself to a massage feels good. And though there's nothing wrong with taking time out of a busy day for an hour or so of relaxation at a spa, you can even give yourself an effective massage that will reap health benefits.

"People often don't realize how easy it is to give themselves a massage," says psychologist Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the University of Miami Touch Research Institute and a longtime researcher on the benefits of massage. "Anything that provides pressure can work."

Field suggests keeping a tennis ball in your office, placing it against your shoulder blades and doing deep knee bends against the wall to give yourself a back rub. Or people buy dowel rods--"if you rub your legs and arms with those you give yourself an excellent massage," she notes. In addition, "a lot of five-and-dime stores have wooden or plastic massage devices--they're easy to keep in your office."

Research on massage by psychologists at the Touch Research Institute and from other fields, such as nursing, shows it lessens stress, depression and anxiety. Massage also decreases pain associated with migraines, lower-back stress and fibromyalgia. Self-massage can even reduce cravings for cigarettes. And it's been proven to help hypertension by reducing diastolic blood pressure.

The benefits of massage come from stimulating pressure receptors in the brain, says Field. "Most people don't know that. They might do light stroking, but that doesn't help and really is aversive to most people."

These receptors are long and well-insulated nerve fibers--much more insulated than pain receptors, she adds. "Say, for example, you hit your funny bone and you rub it. The pain message is transmitted more slowly than the pressure message, so it gets turned off and you stop experiencing pain."

According to Field, many types of exercise provide the same stimulation as massage. Yoga, for example, is really a type of self-massage because it involves pushing against a surface or another limb, so it stimulates the pressure receptors. Even using a loofah or natural brush in the shower can stimulate these receptors.

The receptors stimulate the vagus nerve--one of 12 cranial nerves--which connects to the heart and digestive tract, among other body parts. When stimulated, the branch to the heart can slow the heart rate, for example. "So, it's a very big nerve system and it seems to be actively involved in releasing serotonin and decreasing the stress hormone cortisol," says Field.

When cortisol decreases, stress is reduced and immune cells receive a boost. In pain syndromes such as migraine, arthritis and lower-back pain, Field says massage can improve deep sleep, which can help relieve pain. "One of the major culprits in terms of pain syndromes is lack of sleep," she points out.

With diseases like cancer and HIV/AIDS, Field notes, the benefits of massage are not only reduced stress and depressive symptoms, but also an increase in immune functioning. "We've found that whether we're studying pain or psychiatric problems or attention problems, autoimmune problems such as diabetes, and immune-system problems like cancer, they all benefit from massage."

Massage even benefits the massager because massaging stimulates the pressure receptors, says Field.

So, get a video and teach yourself. Give a massage to your kids or significant other. The message is, massage does a body and mind good.

--J. DAW

Field will present "Power of touch" at APA's Annual Convention in Chicago, Thursday, Aug. 22, 4 p.m. Her talk is part of APA President Philip G. Zimbardo's presidential track, "Psychology Makes a Significant Difference."

Further Reading

  • Field, T., Cullen, C., Hartshorn, K. et al. (in press). Fibromyalgia patients experience improved sleep patterns, lower substance p levels and pain reduction following massage therapy. Journal of Clinical Rheumotology.

  • Hernandez-Reif, M., Field, T., et al. (2001). Low back pain is reduced and range of motion increased after massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 106, 131-145.

  • Hernandez-Reif, M., Field, T., et al. (2000). High blood pressure and associated symptoms were reduced by massage therapy. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 4, 31-38.

  • Hernandez-Reif, M., Field, T., et al. (1999). Smoking cravings are reduced by self-massage. Preventive Medicine, 28, 28-32.