Rapaport MH, Schettler P, Bresee C. A preliminary study of the effects of a single session of swedish massage on hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal and immune function in normal individuals. (2010). Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 10, 01-10.
Rapaport, et al examine the responses associated with a single dose of traditional Swedish massage therapy against a “light touch” massage group as control. It was hypothesized that Swedish massage would result in increased oxytocin, which would down-regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and result in more favorable profile of immune markers. The investigators recruited 53 subjects (24 male, 29 female) free of nicotine use, illicit drug use, regular medication use, pregnancy, shift work, current dieting, active medical problems, excessive regular use of alcohol, who were randomized and grouped into the experimental group or control group.
Experimental subjects received a 45 minute standardized Swedish massage and control subjects received the same protocol, but the therapist exerted “light” touch.
Investigators recored psychological assessment results and biochemical assays prior to, immediately, 20, and 60 minutes post-intervention. Regular massage resulted in decreases in arginine vasopressin, a two-way street modulator of ANS tone, and decreased cortisol, however, these were independent of oxytocin response, which defies much conventional massage wisdom. Perhaps this lack of difference in oxytocin was a result of the lack of verbal communication between subject and therapist. Additionally of interest, the control “light” massage group exhibited an increase in cortisol levels, suggesting that the type of touch and pressure may matter at this level.
Standardization was attempted, however, multiple massage therapists were used, thus pressure perception by the therapist was not effectively standardized, which may have influenced outcomes.
This information is valuable in this author’s research as it may help explain massage’s potential impact on the autonomic nervous system via endocrine signaling. Additionally, the article may suggest that those with low vagal tone and concomitant decreases in immune fortitude may benefit from a bout of manual therapy. A recent review has suggested that the impact of massage on cortisol levels is minimal, however (Moyer, 2011).
In periods of high stress training it appears that massage may be able to modulate the endocrine system’s response and subsequently increase stress resistance through multiple avenues.