The Lab Rat Gets Petted: How Massage Works

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Not long ago, I was naked and lying face down on a table as a woman massaged me with oil. Soft music played in the background, and the lights were low. But it wasn’t as fun as it might sound: I was in a room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and something called a heparinized intravenous catheter (essentially a big needle) had been shoved into a vein in my left arm. I had to give blood twice before and six times after the massage — and I had to give two spit samples (one before, one after) into little tubes. (It’s harder than you think to come up with that much saliva.) (More on Be Honest. Does this Study Make My Butt Look Big?)

The reason for these indiginities? As your sturdy Lab Rat, I was following up on an intriguing study published in September in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. The authors — Dr. Mark Hyman Rapaport, chief of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at the hospital, along with colleagues Pamela Schettler and Catherine Bresee — found that even a single deep-tissue Swedish massage resulted in a significantly larger decrease in a hormone called arginine vasopressin (AVP) than a control treatment of light-touch therapy. AVP constricts blood vessels, raises blood pressure, and reduces excretion of urine. The Rapaport study also suggests that massage produces reductions in levels of cortisol, a hormone released when you’re stressed, as well as increases in lymphocytes, cancer-fighting white blood cells.

Intrigued that massage could have such immediate biological effects, I asked Rapaport if I could undergo the same procedure as the study participants, which is how I ended up naked on that table.

Before we get to my results, a little background. People have known for centuries — at least since the Romans had their empire — that massage does something salutary. In 2007 (the most recent year for which data are available), 8.3% of roughly 23,000 U.S. adults who took part in the National Health Interview Survey reported having had at least one massage in the past year. When extrapolated, that makes massage a multibillion-dollar industry. (More on 5 Ways to Stop Stressing)

And for good reason: massage can decrease pain and nausea, improve mood and even stimulate weight gain in preterm infants. But it’s never been clear exactly how massage works so well physiologically.

To find out, Rapaport’s team recruited 53 healthy volunteers who were randomized to receive either deep-tissue massage or a light-touch control therapy (think gentle laying-on of hands). They got those needles stuck into them, and then they were given 30 min. to “habituate” to the catheter. (I don’t know about the other participants, but I never quite “habituated” to the needle pushed deep into the soft crease of my arm.)

After giving two baseline samples of blood, the good part started: a licensed massage therapist worked us over (not too strenuously) for 45 min. A sound machine issued the gentle music of ocean waves. And then the bad part, again: six more blood samples over one hour. Finally, after that, you got to go home.

I found the whole experience stressful, mostly because of the catheter but also because I was reporting on it. Which is why my results were so remarkable: my levels of cortisol declined from 25.6 ug/dL (micrograms per deciliter) to 11.2 ug/dL — a 56% drop. (Overall, the study showed more modest declines in cortisol.)

My levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) also declined significantly — from 60 pg/mL (picograms per milliliter) to just 12. ACTH stimulates production of cortisol, and Rapaport’s team had expected most study participants to show significant drops in ACTH levels. But I was an anomaly: the light-touch group actually showed greater falloffs in ACTH than the massage group.

Rapaport and his colleagues had expected that massage would cause the body to produce more oxytocin, a hormone that fights cortisol. But they were wrong there, too: the touch group had a larger spike in oxytocin than the massage group. My oxytocin actually declined slightly. Oxytocin is known as a hormone that builds trust and love among people. I suppose that catheter didn’t make me feel closer to anyone in the hospital. (More on Healthland’s Guide to Life 2011)

The massage therapist rubbed a huge amount of my AVP away; it went from 84.6 pg/mL to 58.7. And as for my immune system, it was boosted by roughly 18%: I went from 1.15 million lymphocytes per milliliter of blood to 1.36 million. Finally, on the spit test, which measures cortisol directly (and recalled this Lab Rat column), I went from 0.52 ug/dL to 0.38 ug/dL, a 25% reduction.

In short: not bad for 45 min. of massage.

So does this mean we should all get massages every day? Or every week? “I think the jury is still out on dosage,” Rapaport told me. But certainly the “occasional” massage wouldn’t hurt. He says he gets a massage “maybe four or five times a year”; he was planning to get one the last time we spoke because he missed his wife, who was away in Florence learning Italian.

The Rapaport study needs to be replicated with a larger sample, but the results persuaded me to have two massages (a comparison one at an L.A. spa the day after my Cedars-Sinai experiment) and then one back in New York to cope with the difficult Jared Loughner week. Cost is the main factor in my not getting more massages. But I recently cut back my drinking, so maybe I’ll take my booze money and put it in a massage jar each week. Just hold the needles.


Follow my health columns on Twitter @JohnAshleyCloud

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