Most people find massage to be a very pleasant and relaxing experience. When scientists began to study massage and documented that levels of stress hormones were lower after massage, both clients and massage therapists alike were happy to have physiological evidence of their experience.
For many years we've believed that massage lowers stress hormones. In particular, it has been claimed that massage lowers the levels of an easily measured stress hormone called cortisol.
What does the evidence tell us?
A new study has challenged this previously held belief. What happened? Well, two things. First, most of the research done in the U.S. came from one particular institution and when you only have one source of information, if there is a flaw in that source, it may not be evident. The new study looked at research from many different places and found quite a bit of consistency in the results. This was good because if the results of the studies varied wildly it would question the results of the studies. How would you know which studies were valid and which were not if they had very different results? If they all have similar results, then you have a higher level of confidence that the results are valid.
The other thing that happened was that this study examined results a little differently. Some studies measured the levels of cortisol before and after massage and found cortisol levels were decreased after massage. This is true. However, it is also true that laying down, relaxing, and receiving attention for half an hour will lower your cortisol levels. In order to determine whether massage in and of itself has a unique and significant effect, it has to be compared to the effects of just relaxing for half an hour or something similar. When the effects of massage were measured against the effects of a control group that relaxed without massage, it turned out that the effect of massage on hormone levels was not significant.
What does this mean?
Does it mean that we have been tricked into thinking massage feels good? No. Perhaps the most common comment that every massage therapist hears after a good massage is, "I feel so relaxed!" What it means is that we don't know exactly how the chemistry of the body changes to create this feeling of being relaxed. That's okay. We don't need to wait for a physiological explanation to take advantage of the benefits of massage.
If you'd like more detailed explanation of the studies, you can find it here.