How Does Massage Therapy Work?

How Does Massage Therapy Work?

Summary: Knowledge about how massage therapy works has changed from tissue-based explanations to more evidence-based ones.  A variety of interesting things happen in the body, brain and nervous system to create the benefits of massage.

Massage therapy is an ancient practice that is built into human behaviour. As infants, we require caring touch to survive and develop healthy brains (Ardiel, 2010). When we hurt ourselves, we instinctively hold or rub the area for comfort and relief. Massage therapy has existed in various forms throughout human history and across diverse cultures…. because it feels great! But how exactly does massage therapy work?

We used to think that a massage physically released tissues, trigger points and adhesions, but a lot of new information has come to light in recent years that tells us this is not the case. Now we understand that there are a series of complex interactions that contribute to why you feel so great after a massage:

All of these can contribute to the following evidenced-based benefits of massage therapy:

  • reduced levels of anxiety and depression;
  • improved quality and duration of sleep; and
  • decreased pain levels (general pain, chronic pain, headache, shoulder, neck, back, arthritis, postoperative, and temporomandibular pain.)

(Moyer 2004; Field 2007; Jane 2011; Baker 2017; David 2014; Giannitrapani 2019.)

A skilled RMT will discuss your treatment preferences, including which style of massage or technique feels best for you and helps you achieve your treatment goals.

Read our blog on massage therapy techniques to learn more.


  1. Ardiel E and Rankin C. “The importance of touch in development.” Paediatr Child Health, vol. 33, no. 3, March 2010, pp. 153–156. DOI: 10.1093/pch/15.3.153. Retrieved November 8, 2021, from:
  2. Moyer CA, Rounds J, Hannum JW. “A Meta-Analysis of Massage Therapy Research.” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 130, no. 1, March 2015, pp. 3-18. Retrieved November 8, 2021, from:
  3. Field, T., Hernandes-Reif, M., Diego, M., Fraser, M.. “Lower back pain and sleep disturbance are reduced following massage therapy.” J Bodyw Mov Ther, vol. 11, no. 2, 2007, pp.141-145. Retrieved November 8, 2021, from:
  4. Jane, S.W., Chen, S.L., Wilkie, D.J. et al.. “Effects of massage on pain, mood status, relaxation, and sleep in Taiwanese patients with metastatic bone pain: a randomized clinical trial.” Pain, vol. 152, no. 10, 2011, pp. 2432-42. Retrieved November 8, 2021, from:
  5. Baker, S., McBeth, J., Chew-Graham, C.A., Wilkie, R. (2017). “Musculoskeletal pain and co-morbid insomnia in adults; a population study of the prevalence and impact on restricted social participation.” BMC Fam Pract, vol. 18, no. 17, 2017. Retrieved November 8, 2021 from:
  6. David, S., Wilt, J., Covington, E., Scheman, J. “Variability in the relationship between sleep and pain in patients undergoing interdisciplinary rehabilitation for chronic pain.” Pain Med, vol. 15, no. 6, 2014, pp. 1043-1051. Retrieved November 8, 2021, from:
  7. Giannitrapani, KF, Holliday JR, Miake-Lye IM, et al. “Synthesizing the Strength of the Evidence of Complementary and Integrative Health Therapies for Pain.” Pain Medicine, vol 20, no. 9, 2019, pp. 1831–1840. Retrieved November 9, 2021, from:
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"With great respect and gratitude, we practice massage therapy on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples –Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) And Xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Nations."

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