science of us

A Case for Giving Brief, Imperfect Massages

Photo: Bertrand Taoussi/EyeEm/Getty Images

The other day my friend got a massage, and she described it as being so painful that she was almost in tears. She said she’d been tempted to tell the guy to go lighter, but for whatever reason she “toughed it out,” and then, afterward, felt “like a million bucks.” Immediately I wanted the same thing — to be touched, for it to hurt, and for it to make me feel even better once it was over.

My life has been pretty solitary lately, and it can be weird to go for so long without being touched. It’s also weird to realize I’m sort of keeping track. Does a handshake count? A one-armed hug? I hugged a few people lightly at that one party…

In a recent story on Elemental, Medium’s newish health section, journalist Markham Heid investigates the science behind why human touch can alleviate pain. He notes something called the “gate control theory of pain” (first proposed in 1965), which suggests that feelings of physical pressure (i.e. massage) can override feelings of pain by essentially blocking the brain’s “gateway” to pain input. This is why when we bang our elbow, for instance, we instinctively apply pressure. The gate control theory is still a leading theory behind how and why the body experiences pain. (It’s also behind the reasoning for virtual reality pain distraction.) Apparently self-massage is better than nothing, too, and even a tennis ball rolled against the skin can be effective, Heid finds. “Massage therapy will probably always have its haters,” he writes. “But its credibility is hard to dispute.”

Massage has also been shown to decrease both stress and anxiety, in part by stimulating the vagus nerve, which is a member of the parasympathetic nervous system and essential for calming the body down. Massage can also lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, and help with insomnia. (I enjoyed the sort of fun fact that the benefits of massage can’t be “proven” in double-blind studies, since there’s no way of performing a placebo massage. Not yet, anyway.)

Other studies suggest that massage might be to people what the act of petting is to our cats and dogs. Apparently the parts of our brain that appear linked to the enjoyment of physical touch — the insular cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex, for instance — are the same-ish ones that activate in our pets when we rub their heads and stroke their backs. I admire the 2016 study that observed what happened when human participants were “stroked for 40 minutes with a soft brush”: The experience was “perceived as pleasant.” (I am reminded of my favorite dog-massage ASMR video.)

People have always massaged one another, around the world: There’s Swedish massage, Chinese tui na, Indian Ayurvedic massage, Turkish massage, Japanese shiatsu, and Thai massage, to name a few. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates apparently recommended a form of massage for athletes recovering from injuries. Growing up, my friends and I would sometimes exchange 15-minute massages at sleepovers. While the average hour-long massage in the United States cost $72 in 2017, according to the American Massage Therapy Association (and massage was a $16 billion industry that year), maybe there’s some version of this brief, at-home massage exchange we could incorporate back into our lives as adults, if the methodology doesn’t matter as much as the basics of human touch.

A few years ago my friend Logan and I went to India together. While we were there, she got a head and scalp massage that I later tried to re-create for her when we were back in Brooklyn. I brought various oils to her apartment, and for an hour or so, I massaged her head, face, and scalp while she zoned out on her bed. At first we were chatting, but then we weren’t, and eventually I got lost in the moment, too. It’s hard to talk about things being “sensual” without immediately sounding like you mean “sexual,” but it would be nice to reclaim some of that sensual pleasure exchange among friends.

A Case for Giving Brief, Imperfect Massages