Can Massage Therapy Help You Sleep?

An all-natural and pleasurable experience, massage therapy improves sleep and reduces pain and anxiety.

By Sheryl Grassie

What is better than a relaxing massage? It can ease tension, slow down your body, and improve your mood, but it can also have a profound effect on sleep.

The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) cites a plethora of research studies confirming that massage improves sleep for those with all kinds of acute and chronic conditions that interfere with sleep. With everything from psychiatric disorders to cancer, patients saw marked improvement with sleep when receiving regular massage therapy.

How Can Massage Therapy Help You Sleep Better?

What are the most common causes of sleep disorders and insomnia? The answer is two-fold: various types of physical pain or discomfort and mental anxiety. Whether you can’t fall asleep because your back hurts, you wake from restless leg syndrome, you can’t stop thinking about a problem at work, or you are stressed about finances or relationships, what is keeping you up at night is either something physiological or psychological. Massage has a profound effect on both these areas.

But massage also works on the entire body in more subtle ways that affect sleep. Massage helps regulate hormones that affect mood and sleep. If it is done before bed, it can help you feel sleepy. It further supports the body’s ability to regulate itself by lowering blood pressure, decreasing heart rate, and improving circulation. When the body is better regulated, good sleep occurs naturally.

Massage and Pain

It makes sense that a massage might help you sleep better if your back pain is keeping you awake. Lessen the pain by relaxing the muscles, and you just may eliminate what is keeping you up at night. This works on other specific areas as well. If you have a headache that is caused by neck tension, reduce the tension and the pain goes away. Directly reducing the muscle tension in specific areas to reduce pain is one of the greatest impacts that massage has.

So yes, we know massage relaxes your muscles and can reduce or eliminate specific pain, but it also reduces inflammation which causes chronic pain, like that in muscles or joints. Massage works similar to an analgesic, like ibuprofen: it is an anti-inflammatory just not in a pill form. Lowering inflammation in the body is a great way to reduce overall pain, improve health, and get better sleep.

Massage and Anxiety

Anxiety and the explicit anxiety that keeps you up at night is a complicated animal. There are many factors interacting that cause anxiety, but a common one is your hormones. When we are relaxed and happy our serotonin levels are high. When we are depressed and anxious serotonin is low and cortisol (the stress hormone) is high.

Without getting into a complicated explanation of how hormones work, just know that massage increases serotonin and melatonin (the sleep hormone) and decreases cortisol. These hormones, in their proper proportions, work to help maintain your circadian rhythm. In other words, massage helps regulate hormones in a way that improves sleep.

What Kind of Massage Affects Sleep and How Often Do I Need to Do It?

The nitty gritty of what, when, where, and for how long is probably open for debate. Studies show that as little as 3 minutes of massage daily can routinely add 35 minutes to your sleep.  Something as simple as asking your partner to exchange a nightly backrub will improve your sleep.

There are, however, many different options when it comes to massage and for the most part they will all have an impact. Ideally you might go to a professional massage therapist once or even twice a week, but you can derive benefit from massage chairs, massage pads, and very simple at-home massages as well. Let’s take a look at some of the available options.

Types of Massages

Swedish Massage

Considered the most common type of massage, Swedish massage is a lighter massage with long strokes and light tapping that works on the top layers of the muscles.

Chair Massage

Anyone who gets a pedicure has likely experienced one type of chair massage, the mechanical kind. These chairs have built in rollers and thumping devices that work on tight muscles. Chair massage, the kind done by a professional therapist, refers to massage that is performed in a specialty chair. These chairs have a cradle for your face and allow you to relax and be supported while sitting slumped over instead of lying on a table. They allow for a fully clothed massage if you have that preference, and are primarily geared to the back and neck.

Reflexology

Reflexology is sometimes synonymous with “foot massage” because in its common form, the practitioner applies pressure to points on the foot that correlate to various parts of the body. However, some reflexology practices, like Vita-flex, may include the hands or the whole body. Points on the body are pressed to stimulate certain organs. There are corresponding points in the hands and feet to all the organs in the body.

Self-Massage

Self-massage refers to any forms of massage you apply to yourself. Taking a Jacuzzi bath, using a reflexology foot roller, applying oil and massaging your hands or feet, or sitting on a massage pad can all be self-massage. There are a host of products available that can be used on different parts of the body, like neck massagers or electric vibrating rollers you can use on yourself at home.

Other Types of Massage

  • Shiatsu Massage: A type of pressure point massage that originated in Japan. Shiatsu translates to “finger pressure” and is a rhythmic process covering the entire body.
  • Deep Tissue: A type of massage where the therapist applies more pressure than in a regular massage to get at deeper layers of the muscle and fascia.
  • Hot Stone Massage: In this supplemental practice, hot stones are applied to parts of the back or legs to loosen muscles and penetrate the area with heat. Hot stones are generally used in addition to another type of massage.
  • Aromatherapy Massage: Another adjunct to straight massage, the therapist uses essential oils as part of the session. These are formulated to address certain feelings or support vibrational healing in certain parts of the body.
  • Sports Massage: Performance geared, either helping to reduce the risk of injury or to treat an injury, it focuses on stretching and relaxing muscles, creating more flexibility, and relieving pain.
  • Lymphatic Drainage: A very mild form of massage that works to increase circulation of the lymph fluids to remove toxins.
  • Reiki: A type of massage that works with the energy fields around the body. The practitioner transfers energy through their hands to improve the flow of energy in their client and reduce pain.
  • Healing Touch: In this form of massage, the therapist may or may not directly touch the client. The practice is more energy based, like Reiki, and focuses on helping the body to heal itself.
  • Sleep Massage: So named because it is done just prior to going to bed, this can be numerous forms of massage performed before sleep and is generally done in the individual’s home.

Summary

Massage is a wonderful natural way to promote better sleep. It helps you to relax, reduces pain, and regulates sleep hormones. It can decrease anxiety and eliminate barriers to good quality sleep. Choose from many forms offered by professional therapists, consider self-massage, or purchase a device like a massage chair. There is no downside to massage when performed correctly, and you just may find it comes with a better night’s sleep.


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