Massage has been known to improve a person’s physical, mental, and spiritual health and well-being. New evidence has begun to show that massage therapy has positive effects on the management of stress hormones and immune function. In April 2013, Dr. Mark Rapaport (Massage Therapy Foundation) put massage therapy to the test and presented findings from his current study, “A Preliminary Study of the Effects of a Single Session of Swedish Massage on Hypothalamic Pituitary-Adrenal and Immune Function in Normal Individual.”

The purpose of the study was to investigate the body’s response to a single dose Swedish massage therapy session versus a light touch control group. The hypothesis was that the Swedish massage therapy group would experience an increase in oxytocin levels, which would in turn decrease the activity of various hormones involved with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) connection and ultimately improve immune function.

A total of 53 individuals, both men and women, were randomly split between the Swedish massage and light touch groups. Licensed massage therapists performed both the Swedish massage and the light touch interventions; each massage or intervention session lasted 45 minutes. The Swedish massage consisted of effleurage, petrissage, kneading, tapotement, and friction applied with the thumb. The light touch was performed with the back of the hand only. Neither the subjects nor the therapists knew the hypothesis of the study.

Blood and saliva samples were collected before and at various times after the sessions. The participants also completed three psychological self-report statements before and and after the intervention.

The findings concluded that a single session of Swedish massage had measurable effects on the immune system and HPA connection. When compared to light touch, the Swedish massage therapy caused a decrease in vasopressin and cortisol levels, as well as an improvement in the biomarkers for immune function. However, contrary to the hypothesis, these findings were not caused by changes in oxytocin levels.

None of the results varied by age, gender, or self-reported race for the two study groups. Dr. Rapaport and his colleagues now have data that supports the notion that a single session of Swedish massage therapy may have pronounced effects on the immune system and the body’s stress hormone levels.