In a study published in Scientific Reports, Fulvio D`Acquisto and colleagues from Queen Mary University of London, UK showed that 8 days of massage-like therapy (hand- but not brush-stroked mice) resulted in modulation of murine immune system’s parameters through the sympathetic innervation and noradrenaline release.
One mechanism in which massage initiates its effects is through stimulation of the nervous system via different mechanoreceptors found in the skin. The pressure exerted on these receptors is then translated in different effects.
More specifically, it can activate pathways that transmit signals along the long and myelinated nerve fibres to the lymbic area of the brain or can influence the release of soluble messengers such as substance P or serotonin that are considered responsible for mediating the ‘relaxing effects’ of massage.
In a study with medically and psychiatrically healthy young adults, a weekly Swedish massage had minimal effect on the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal function. But twice-weekly rubdown produced a different response pattern with increased oxytocin levels, decreased arginine-vasopressin (AVP), and decreased cortisol (CORT) levels.
Despite this wide range of applications, very little is known about the cellular and molecular mechanisms behind the beneficial effects of massage.
Indeed, the lack of standardisation, the subjectivity of the receiver and the provider, together with the multiplicity of tissues and organs ‘activated’ by rubdown,
has made this adjunct therapy a difficult practice to be studied in experimental terms.
In the Scientific Reports study Fulvio D`Acquisto and colleagues tested the effects of stroking as surrogate for massage and compared human (finger-driven) and non-human (brush stroke-driven) approaches to assess two different types of stroking.
In this study, both human (finger-driven) and non-human (brush stroke-driven) stroking showed a trend towards an increase in T cell number in lymphoid organs. However, only hand-delivered-stroking showed a statistical significant difference compared to control, reinforcing the hypothesis that the application of a controlled pressure might not be the sole parameter that contributes to the therapeutic effect of massage.
Massage per se apparently had no effect on anxiety-like behaviors in mice, but the immunomodulatory effects were linked to a decreased sympathetic/noradrenergic innervation of lymphoid organs, and a reversal of of glucocorticoids’ immunosuppressive effects on thymocytes.
The authors discuss previous research in humans suggesting that massage could either enhance vagal activity via stimulation of pressure receptors that ultimately signal the limbic system or decrease the release of norepinephrine in the blood stream causing an overall down regulation of sympathetic activity. Of note, prior work by this or other research groups have shown sympathetic nerves that innervate lymphoid tissues as one of the major pathways by which the neuronal and immune system communicate to maintain body homeostasis.
Thus, importantly, the data from the present study related to the noradrenergic tone present in the thymus and spleen of stroked mice supported these findings and showed a drastic reduction in nerve density and noradrenaline content when compared to control mice.
The authors suggest that massage-like therapies can have beneficial effects on the immune system by reducing stress mediators, and that massage may support the recovery of immune function during periods of immunosuppression.
Touch, like all the other senses, is an important function for both the maintenance of emotional and physical wellbeing.
Therapies based on the stimulation of the senses – such as touch, smell and hearing – might be useful as complementary therapies provided alongside classical treatments to improve or facilitate the healing of patients.”