It is undeniable that massage has always been a healing method, but could it be said that it really works? In the 21st century, in the midst of a scientific era, where medicine is living the paradigm of the Evidence, can we say that “massage is a medicine”, that it really has therapeutic effects?
There are about 5 million touch receptors in our skin that send nerve impulses to the brain through the spinal cord. Touch is one of the first senses to develop and possibly the last to disappear. The most insignificant physical contacts have important effects, an interesting daily example is that those waitresses who touch the client’s hand or shoulder when bringing change usually receive more tips. When performing a massage the patient undoubtedly receives information, which induces modifications in his body and mind that can be used for therapy.
The idea that the sick can be cured through contact is an old-fashioned one. The first written document on massage therapy is Chinese and is 3,000 years old. The Hindus, Egyptians and ancient Persians had their manual techniques; there are Egyptian references dating from the XXII century BC. For Babylonian-Assyrian medicine, massage was considered useful for attacking the devil who was causing the sick to suffer, and the Persians had chapters on massage in their medical writings.
The word massage has varied roots, such as the Arabic word “mass” or the Greek word “massein”. For this reason we can know that in these cultures massage also formed an important branch of therapy. From Greece comes the considered “Father of medicine”, Hippocrates of Cos, who in the 4th century B. C. stressed the superlative importance of frictions and taught them to his students. Some six centuries later, his great follower Galen would study the manual techniques and write extensively about massage.
The essence of the effects of massage is first of all what it exercises in a mechanical way and by physical phenomena in the tissues; and secondly (but no less important) its neuroreflective action by stimulating the cutaneous receptors (exteroceptors), those located in muscles, tendons and ligaments (proprioceptors), and those housed in the walls of the vessels of the circulatory system. Through the sensory pathways, the impulses pass to the central nervous system, reaching different areas in the spinal cord, hemispheres and cerebral cortex, causing functional changes in the organism. We will now look at these changes in the different anatomical-functional organizations:
Skin: The manipulation of the skin stimulates the production and local release of a neurotransmitter called Substance P, which produces local vasodilatation and, therefore, an increase in temperature of 2 to 3 ºC. The heat leads to a softening of the tissues and the stretching of the teguments relaxes their fibers, these two elements induce to increase the elasticity of the skin.
Circulatory system: The formations of histamine and derivative substances that occur under the action of skin massage stimuli travel through the bloodstream and lymphatic to the whole body exerting beneficial changes in the vessels of different organs and systems, significantly increasing circulation in skin and muscles; this result is also achieved thanks to the opening of capillaries by the mechanical action of massage. This beneficial modification collaborates with the blood return to the heart, helps oxygenation and nourishment of the tissues, optimizing cell metabolism and favoring the elimination of cellular waste. Lymphatic circulation also benefits. These effects lead to better relaxation of the body, lower heart rate and heart rate, and lower blood pressure. It has also been proven that it increases the number of red and white blood cells (neutrophils and lymphocytes of the “natural killer cells” type).