Massage Therapy & Tissue Repair: The Value of Parasympathetic Work

Many people seek massage therapy treatments for various medical and musculoskeletal concerns, but did you know that massage therapy can also have a systemic (full body) effect? This article will briefly discuss the benefits of massage therapy and its effect on the parasympathetic nervous system as well as our overall healing and wellness.

What Is The Parasympathetic Nervous System?

The parasympathetic nervous system is one part of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). Our ANS controls most regulatory functions in the body, specifically, these are the things you don’t have conscious control of, like your heartbeat, hormone levels, digestion, etc.We often call the parasympathetic system the “Rest and Digest” system because it is active while we are resting and digesting. That compares to our sympathetic nervous system, our “Fight or Flight” system, which is active under times of stress. Both systems work together, and in contrast to each other, to try to keep our bodies in balance. 

How Does Massage Affect The Parasympathetic Nervous System?

Massage Therapy is the practice of manually manipulating tissues and joints to help alleviate pain and dysfunction. Massage therapy activates pressure receptors under the skin that will relay messages to the brain, shifting our systems to parasympathetic dominance (5, 1). Research also suggests that moderate pressure massage treatments had the greatest effect in decreasing the body’s stress response and increasing the body’s parasympathetic healing (1). In fact, after extensive research, T. Field states: “To date, we can confidently say that stimulating pressure receptors under the skin leads to a cascade of events including: stimulating the vagus (increased vagal tone)… (and) …decreasing cortisol, which may facilitate immune function…”  (1).

Why Is Parasympathetic Response Important In My Healing? 

Arguably, one of the most important parts of parasympathetic work in injury recovery is tissue anabolism. Tissue anabolism is the body’s process of repairing and strengthening muscles and other tissues. For example, while you are at the gym weightlifting, running or walking – any activity – we are putting our body under (good) stress. As we mentioned earlier, the stress system is the sympathetic nervous system. This system is responsible for tissue ‘catabolism’ – breaking down muscle tissue. While we are weightlifting, running, even doing our physiotherapy exercises, we are actually breaking down our tissues/muscles! Then, while we are resting, relaxing and “parasympathetic-ing,” we repair those muscles to be stronger than before. It is a logical conclusion that increased parasympathetic time during injury recovery can lead to quicker recovery times, getting you back more quickly to the things you love to do. 

How Do I Know If I Am In Parasympathetic Mode?

Some great signs that you have entered parasympathetic mode during your massage treatment are: you’ve fallen asleep, your nose starts to run, you start to drool, you feel/hear your stomach gurgling, or you find that you need to use the washroom afterwards. 

So, the next time you want to “relax” during your massage treatment- go ahead! You’ll likely be doing valuable tissue repair. 


References: 

  1. Diego MA, Field T. (2005). Moderate pressure massage elicits a parasympathetic nervous system response. Int J Neurosci. 2009;119:630–638.
  2. Field, T., Diego, M., & Hernandez-Reif, M. (2007). Massage therapy research. Developmental Review,27 (1), 75-89. Doi: 10.1016/j.dr.2005.12.002
  3. Guan, L. (2012).  The effect of massage on automatic nervous system in patients in pediatric intensive care units (Unpublished master dissertation). The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.
  4. Lee, Y. H., Park, B. N., & Kim, S. H. (2011). The effects of heat and massage application on autonomic nervous system. Yonsei medical journal52(6), 982–989. doi:10.3349/ymj.2011.52.6.982
  5. Moyer, C. a, Rounds, J., & Hannum, J. W. (2004). A meta-analysis of massage therapy research. Psychological bulletin, 130(1), 3–18. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.1.3

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