Massage used to be considered an indulgence, but it's now recognized as a legitimate therapy for some painful conditions.
Therapeutic massage may relieve pain by way of several mechanisms, including relaxing painful muscles, tendons, and joints; relieving stress and anxiety; and possibly helping to "close the pain gate" by stimulating competing nerve fibers and impeding pain messages to and from the brain.
Therapeutic massage is an active area of research. In particular, it has been studied for its effect on pain in the back, hands, neck, and knees, among other areas. A study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice showed a reduction in hand pain and an improvement in grip strength among people who had four weekly hand massage sessions and did self-massage at home. They also slept better and had less anxiety and depression than people in the control group who didn't receive hand massage.
A study published in Annals of Family Medicine in 2014 found that 60-minute therapeutic massage sessions two or three times a week for four weeks relieved chronic neck pain better than no massage or fewer or shorter massage sessions.
Massage therapy can involve varying degrees of pressure. Some people find certain forms of massage, such as deep tissue massage, to be painful. Massage doesn't have to be painful to be therapeutic, so be sure to tell your therapist the type of touch you prefer (light touch, firm pressure, hard pressure). Lighter may be more relaxing and therefore more beneficial, depending on your situation. People with certain pain conditions such as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome may only be able to tolerate light pressure.
There are no data to suggest that massage is harmful, but there are some specific situations where it is not recommended: massaging an inflamed area of skin, for example, can make it worse by causing irritation. One should not have massage to an area of infection, as it might spread the infection. The American Massage Therapy Association lists heart problems, infectious disease, phlebitis, and some skin conditions as reasons to avoid massage. Choose a licensed therapist; your PT may be able to make a recommendation.
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.