Can Massage Improve the Immune System and Help Prevent Viruses?
Massage is one of the oldest therapies in existence. For some it’s an occasional indulgence, but it is also claimed that massage can help a whole range of conditions, from back pain and sore muscles to alleviating the side-effects of some cancer treatments. Some of the well-recognised benefits of massage therapy include:
reduced tension in the muscles
a reduction in hormones associated with stress
increased flexibility in the joints
improvements in circulation
aiding with insomnia and improving sleep quality in general
assistance with high blood pressure
improvement to the visibility of scars
enhanced recovery of soft tissue injuries
reduction in the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression
enhanced sense of relaxation
alleviating nausea and fatigue in cancer patients
stimulation of the lymphatic system which soothes the nervous system
But studies have also shown that massage therapy can help boost the immune system, flushing toxins and increasing blood flow throughout the body. This is particularly beneficial, and potentially vital, to patients with conditions where the body sees a reduction in T Lymphocytes (the white blood cells that play a large role in defending the body from disease). Massage increases the activity of those blood cells, thus helping our body fight diseases.
BBC and D’Acquisto Study
A study was carried out by the BBC who teamed up with Professor Fulvio D’Acquisto, an immunologist from the University of Roehampton and the Bodyology Massage School. Fulvio came across research which found that massage boosted the number of white blood cells in patients suffering from HIV, a disease that causes a reduction in T Lymphocytes. To see if massage might have the same effect in people without serious immune conditions, they invited 7 volunteers in for a massage.
A blood sample was taken from each volunteer and analysed for the number of T Lymphocytes present. This provided a baseline reading.
Each volunteer was asked to lie down and relax for an hour, after which another blood sample was taken to ensure that when their levels were tested after a massage, any changes in T Lymphocyte count were due to the massage itself, not simply the effect of an hour’s relaxation.
Each volunteer was given an hour’s massage and immediately after the session a third and final blood test was taken.
Results from the group after the massage showed a 70 per cent boost in white blood cells compared to the baseline results. This was also a higher reading than those taken after the volunteers had simply relaxed.
The immune system is complex and it’s not simply the case that increasing the white blood cell count in a person who already has healthy levels will improve their health.
However, T-lymphocytes do perform a wide array of functions in the body involved with growth and repair, which could in part explain why massage has been reported to help with so many conditions.
Researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found that people who received a 45-minute massage showed an increased number of T lymphocytes. “This research indicates that massage doesn't only feel good, it may also be good for you," said study researcher Dr. Mark Rapaport, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences.
The massage brought about other physical changes too. Participants had lower levels of cytokines molecules which play a role in inflammation. Chronically high levels of inflammation are known to be associated with conditions such as asthma, cardiovascular disease and depression. In addition, the massages had an impact on particpants' hormone levels with decreased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and vasopressin (a hormone believed to play a role in aggressive behaviour).
In the Dominican Republic a trial was carried out to explore whether massage therapy could aid the immune systems of children with HIV who were unable to access antiretroviral therapies. Results were extremely positive with more stable cell counts and immune improvement in older children, and a significant increase in natural killer cells in younger children. These results further support the role for massage therapy in immune preservation.
What does it mean for you?
It has been shown that massage therapy can increase the activity level of the body’s white blood cells that work to combat viruses. Those benefits can translate to people seeking to fight off the common cold, flu and other seasonal illnesses. Improving blood and lymph flow, massage is evidently beneficial to the entire body and can be a valuable support to anybody wanting to strengthen their immune system.