Massage is a style of therapy involving the manipulation of layers of muscle and tissue to enhance function, and promote relaxation.

Massage therapy has been used in China for more than 3,000 years. Chinese practitioners believe massage can help ease feelings of alienation because touch releases hormones inside us that bind us to another human being. Thus, massage therapy can address both physical aches and pains and help to calm the mind and improve mood.

How Massage Therapy Works

Massage means rubbing and stretching muscle. This relieves tension in muscles, increases blood flow, and promotes relaxation. Massage softens rigid muscle and connective tissue that can be painful, limit movement, or cause inflammation.

Although it is rarely a cure, massage therapy can help manage the physical symptoms associated with a variety of ailments. For those with depression, massage can alleviate sluggishness, back pain, joint pain, and muscle aches. It can also help with fatigue and sleeping problems.

There are numerous styles of massage. Some involve over-the-clothes touching, and others involve direct contact with the skin using scented oils. Some styles involve acupuncture needles, complex twisting poses, and warm stones. Here are some common types of massage used in the United States:

  • Swedish massage. The most common type, Swedish massage is a gentle method that applies smooth, circular kneading actions to the muscles.
  • Aromatherapy massage. This method combines massage with scented oils tailored to a person’s needs. Scents can help reduce stress or energize a person.
  • Deep tissue massage. This is used for tight muscles from stress and other problems. It focuses on the muscles closest to the bone and their connective tissues.
  • Shiatsu. This massage style uses the principles of acupuncture—focusing on specific points on the body—but doesn’t involve needles. The pressure used in this method is firmer than others but rarely produces any stiffness afterward.
  • Hot stone massage. Common in spas, hot stone massage involves warm, flat stones that are placed on the body to relax muscles. The massage therapist also applies pressure to the stones to relieve muscle tension.
  • Chair massage. With this type of massage, a person sits on a special chair and leans forward into a headrest. A chair massage is a great introduction to massage as it is usually short and doesn’t involve removing any clothing.
  • Reflexology. This type of massage involves the feet. The massage therapist targets lines in the feet that are believed to correspond with systems and organs in the body.

Pros of Massage Therapy

When done correctly, a massage usually provides immediate gratification. It is safe, and people often feel relaxed and calm from the time the massage begins.

Cons of Massage Therapy

Massage therapy is not effective as a long-term or sole treatment for depression. For people with severe depression, massage therapy doesn’t address the emotional and/or chemical problems in a way that can be sustained.

What the Expert Says 

Dr. Mason Turner, Chief of Psychiatry, Kaiser Permanente San Francisco, said that massage therapy can help with depression by relieving muscle tension and improving physical health. This is important to helping the body relax so the mind can relax. Massage, he said, helps with the body-mind connection, which can improve overall health and aid in stress management.

“Anything that helps the person connect their mind and body together can be helpful,” he said.