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Depression Busters: How Massage Therapy Can Help

written by: Nicholas Kuvaas • edited by: Emma Lloyd • updated: 6/1/2011

Massage therapy has been found to be effective for treating depression, but critics suggest that this is merely a placebo effect. Assuming this is incorrect, this article offers some possible mechanisms for how massage therapy treats depression.

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    Isn't This Just a Placebo Effect?

    Complementary and alternative medicines have become increasingly popular in the United States. This is due to a few factors. First, these treatments acknowledge the whole person including spiritual as well as physical aspects. Secondly, many turn to them when traditional medicine is ineffective to treat their ailment, and, finally, they believe that alternative medicine practitioners are more attentive to their needs.

    Massage therapy is an alternative medicine, and some would argue that any benefits from it are a placebo effect, meaning people want to believe that the treatment works, so they report that it does because of the reasons listed previously. However, studies comparing massage therapy to a comparison group such as a massage video or relaxation therapy have found it to be effective in reducing depression symptoms. While the research is limited, it does appear to be consistent that massage therapy can relieve mild to moderate depression.

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    How does Massage Therapy Help to Treat Depression?

    If the depression relief isn't a placebo effect, what about massage therapy is helping to relieve depression? This is where the issue becomes complicated. A few mechanisms have been proposed to describe the theurapeutic effect of massage therapy.

    • the massage actually changes the activity of the brain from being heavily active in the right frontal lobe (associated with a sad effect) to be heavily active in the left frontal lobe (associated with a happier effect)
    • it lowers stress hormones levels, blood pressure, and heart rate
    • it increases the availability of serotonin in the brain similar to antidepressants
    • it increases the production of the hormone oxytocin

    It should be noted that there is no scientific evidence to support these mechanisms yet, but research into massage therapy continues to study these issues.

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    Treatments for Depression With Massage Therapy

    A meta-analysis conducted by the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in Kaohsiung, Taiwan located 17 studies where massage therapy was used to treat depression. These excluded studies which combined massage therapy with another treatment, but it found that all studies found massage therapy to be an effective treatment against depression. However, these studies did have limitations such as a lack of standardized massage therapy and consistent depression diagnostic tools.

    Likewise, research on combined treatments for depression with massage therapy are very limited. It's unclear if massage therapy would add to regular treatments such as medication or psychotherapy. Massage therapy is better than no treatment, but, like most complementary and alternative medicines, more research is needed to draw strong conclusions.

    If the proposed massage therapy mechanisms are correct, treatments for depression with massage therapy could have other secondary benefits for those who suffer from depression. It could help people with depression to wean off of medication, and increasing oxytocin may have many benefits which are not fully understood yet. Overall, the future research in this area is very promising.

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    References

    Jorm, A. F., Christensen, H., Griffiths, K. M., & Rodgers, B. (2002). Effectiveness of complementary and self-help treatments for depression. Medical Journal of Australia, 176(10), 84-95.

    Research Review Shows Massage Therapy Effectively Addresses Symptoms of Depression. Retrieved from http://www.massagemag.com/News/massage-news.php?id=8952 on May 17th, 2011.

    Wu, P., Fuller, C., Liu, F., Lee, H., Fan, B., Hoven, C., Mandell, D., Wade, C., & Kronenberg, F. (2007). Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine Among Women With Depression: Results of a National Survey. Psychiatric Services, 58(3), 349-356.

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