In recent years there has been a movement where Physiotherapy treatment has had a more “hands off” approach, where physical activity and exercise has been the main choice of therapy for rehabilitation instead of the traditional manual therapy. I have found this very difficult to swallow, now don’t get me wrong, exercise as therapy is powerful! In almost every instance a regular exercise and movement practice is a must in order to assist the body to heal. However I am wondering if as therapists we have forgotten the power of therapeutic touch.
Besides the intention of providing joints more freedom of movement and releasing myofascial restrictions, there is something deeper that happens with therapeutic touch. Field et al (2004) studied the effects of massage therapy on 84 depressed pregnant women. The researchers put the women in three groups; a massage group where the women received hands on massage twice a week for 16 weeks, a progressive muscle relaxation program and the third group received standard prenatal care alone. What the researchers found was that the women who were in the massage group had a 23% decrease of cortisol in their saliva, a 25% increase of dopamine and a 23% increase of serotonin in their urine.
Now remember cortisol is the end product of the sympathetic nervous system or the “fight or flight” response, basically cortisol is what is released in your body as a response to stress or danger. On the other hand dopamine and serotonin are activating central nervous system neurotransmitters that contribute to feelings of well being and happiness.
Field and another group of researchers did another study looking at 32 depressed adolescent mothers. They had 2 groups; one group received relaxation therapy over 5 weeks while the other group received ten 30 minute massage sessions over the same time. In this study the researchers found that only the massage group showed behavioural and stress hormone changes, in particular there was a decrease of salivary and urine cortisol by 28% at the end of the 5 weeks.
The positive biological and physiological effects of human touch is not just seen in “therapeutic touch” but also in hugging! A study completed by Light et al (2005) examined 59 premenopausal women before and after contact (hugging) with their husbands. What they found was that frequent hugs between spouses and partners are associated with lower blood pressure and higher oxytocin levels in premenopausal women. Oxytocin is a hormone this is often called “the love hormone” as it plays a role in social bonding, sexual reproduction and childbirth.
In another study where researchers took 230 cancer patients and put them into 2 groups; one group received massage therapy and “healing touch”, while the other group received standard care. What they found was that the group that received massage and “healing touch” had a decrease in blood pressure, respiratory rate and heart rate, basically they were more into their parasympathetic nervous system or “rest and digest”.
So as you can see interpersonal touch wether in the form of manual therapy or a hug plays an important role in governing our emotional and physical well-being. So if you’re on a healing journey and your addressing your physical health through diet and exercise; why not also think about receiving or seeking out regular manual therapy to improve your emotional and physical health.
Ericka offers Zen Thai Shiatsu massage therapy, with a special interest in head, neck and jaw and pre and post natal care.
Field, T., Diego, M., Hernandez-Reif, M., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2004). Massage therapy effects on depressed pregnant women. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology, 25(2), 115–122. doi:10.1080/01674820412331282231
Field,T., Grizzle, N., Scafidid, F., Schanberg, S. (1998) Massage and relaxation therapies’ effects on depressed adolescent mothers. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 6(1), 57. doi:10.1016/s0965-2299(98)80070-8
MuLight, K. C., Grewen, K. M., & Amico, J. A. (2005). More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women. Biological Psychology, 69(1), 5–21. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2004.11.002
Post-White, J., Kinney, M. E., Savik, K., Gau, J. B., Wilcox, C., & Lerner, I. (2003). Therapeutic Massage and Healing Touch Improve Symptoms in Cancer. Integrative Cancer Therapies, 2(4), 332–344. doi:10.1177/1534735403259064