The main uses of massage are to promote relaxation, treat painful muscle conditions, and reduce anxiety (often described in terms of “stress relief”). Professionals say massage leads to short-term improvements in pain and sleep disorders, conditions known to be exacerbated by anxiety.
Massage professionals and their patients also claim that massage improves self-image in people with physical disabilities and terminal illnesses. This result can be partially explained by the general well-being sensations that are commonly reported after massage. Touch itself is likely therapeutic, especially for patients with limited opportunities for physical contact, such as those without close friends or family, or with painful physical conditions.
Massage is also said to help patients feel healed. Patients may be more prepared to deal with and discuss difficult psychological problems when they are less anxious, feel better about themselves, and trust their caregivers. Professionals say that this sense of caring leading to better communication is one reason why massage can be an important stepping stone to effective counseling, such as when dealing with mental health problems or addictions.
Other situations in which massage is used to foster communication and relationships include working with children with profound disabilities, where touch can be a primary means of communication. Similarly, some midwives organize “baby massage” groups where new mothers learn massage as a way to improve their relationship with their children.
Reflexology practitioners argue that, in addition to relaxation and the non-specific effects of massage, they can cause more specific changes in health. A classic reflexology textbook, for example, includes clinical cases of ataxia, osteoarthritis, and epilepsy. Also, some aromatherapists report benefits for patients with conditions as diverse as infertility, acne, diabetes, and hay fever.
To date, most clinical studies on massage have focused on the psychological outcomes of treatment. Good evidence from randomized controlled trials indicates that massage reduces short-term anxiety scores in settings as diverse as intensive care, psychiatric institutions, hospices, and occupational health. Limited evidence shows that these reductions in anxiety are cumulative over time. Doctors say that offering patients a concrete relaxation experience through massage can facilitate the use of self-help relaxation techniques. The validity of this statement has not yet been evaluated. The evidence that massage can improve sleep and reduce pain remains anecdotal. Anecdotal.