Susie Ellis on Susie’s Spa Blog last week called to my attention a new research study which is to be published this month in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine entitled “A Preliminary Study of the Effects of a Single Session of Swedish Massage on Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal and Immune Function in Normal Individuals.” The study compared two groups of healthy adults, one of which received a Swedish massage, while a second control group received a “light touch” treatment. They found some significant positive differences in the group experiencing the Swedish massage.
For those of us who work in the spa industry, this is exciting research, so I contacted Mark Rapaport, the study’s lead author and the chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to get a copy of his report. The paper showed that the largest effect they found was on Arginine Vasopressin (AVP,) a hormone thought to play a role in stress and aggression. Smaller but significant effects were found in an increased quantity of lymphocytes in the blood (related to immunity,) cortisol hormones (related to stress,) and “lower levels of whole blood mitogen-stimulated cytokine production” (don’t ask me what this means but the researchers suggest this may help explain some of massage therapy’s benefits for children with asthma.)
The New York Times, in their article on Rapaport’s study noted that the researchers were surprised by their findings. (Susie Ellis’ response: “Well . . . it’s certainly not a surprise to any of us in the [spa] industry—nor to people who have had massages regularly.”) You tell ‘em Susie! In the spa industry, we may not be surprised at these findings, but there are several important things to rejoice in this piece of research. Here’s why I think this study is important:
1. They studied a healthy population. As I have protested in other articles (here and here,) the research that has been done previously on massage is limited and has focused on clinical populations (for example on patients with cancer, post partum depression, asthma, or insomnia.) In this study, the researchers point out that “although these studies suggest that massage therapy may benefit certain individuals . . . methodological problems in studies of massage severely limit their ability to generate scientifically valid and generalizable conclusions.” This is especially important for the spa industry which (for the most part) caters to healthy consumers and bills their services as preventative and beneficial to the general public, not as a treatment for specific ailments.
2. They showed benefits even against a light touch control group. I often argue that the benefits of a spa treatment may have very little to do with the massage itself. There are a lot of things going on in the treatment room of the spa: the client is separated from their cellphones and other technology, they have an intention and expectation of a healing experience, the environment (lighting, music, etc.) is soothing, they are given time in silence for reflection and/or mindfulness, and even before the therapy begins, they experience the presence and touch of a nurturing human being. So while avid spa-goers can speak anecdotally about the benefits of massage, there are so many confounding things happening in the experience that it is hard to say how much impact the massage itself had. But in this study, the control group experienced all of those confounding elements and so only the technique of how the massage was applied was different (Note to my spa savvy readers: the experimental group received typical Swedish massage techniques including “effleurage, petrissage, kneading, tapotement, and thumb friction.” The control group received “only a light touch with the back of the hand.”)
3. They found a benefit in a single session. It is easy to imagine that a lifestyle that includes regular massage and relaxation would lead to less stress and greater health. I’m sure what was surprising to the researchers was that they could see an effect even after a single treatment. And this is surprising, because even though we in the spa industry believe in what we have to offer, we also know that guests have to come in regularly and shouldn’t expect a miracle to happen in a single visit. But this study was able to conclude “that a single session of Swedish massage may have fairly profound acute effects on the immune system.”
Although there is much to celebrate here, even in the spa industry we have to take these findings with a grain of salt. Nothing is “proven” by a single research study. But a study like this that finds an effect on a healthy population after a single session opens the door for further research. Just by uncovering that there is something here that is measurable, it invites other scientists to dig deeper. And in digging deeper, we just may discover there is much more to spa than most people realize.
References and recommended reading:
Rapaport, M. H., Schettler, P., & Bresee, C. (October, 2010). A Preliminary Study of the Effects of a Single Session of Swedish Massage on Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal and Immune Function in Normal Individuals. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(10), 1079-1088.