Self-Care Science: Why a Massage Feels Good

Because being pushed on stimulates your vagus nerve, which releases a chemical called acetylcholine, duh!


We mostly all agree that hot tubs, massages and the like feel good, but ask anyone why and you’ll get a shrug (which is fair! That person was trying to relax, after all). Understanding what these self-care activities are doing to your body — and more importantly, why they feel so good — can actually help you reach peak relaxation, though. That’s why we’re looking at the science behind various feel-good pursuits. Today’s focus: Getting a massage.

Being pushed on by a pair of expert hands feels good for several reasons, the first being that our vagus nerve — which connects your brain to your body — becomes aroused when pressure receptors under your skin are stimulated. When the vagus nerve is energized during a massage, a chemical called acetylcholine is released, and acetylcholine promotes an overall sense of calm by slowing your heart rate.

Likewise, a stimulated vagus nerve releases an assortment of other feel-good chemicals, which could explain why at least one study focused on massages found that levels of cortisol — a stress-causing hormone — dropped by 31 percent following a nice kneading of body parts, while levels of rewarding hormones, like dopamine and serotonin, increased by around 30 percent. Similarly, another study shows that receiving a back rub can increase levels of oxytocin, a hormone known to induce feelings of contentment and alleviate those of stress and anxiety.

On the more physical end of the spectrum, there are some theories that suggest pressure on the skin can impede feelings of pain — like those caused by sore muscles or, say, falling down a large flight of stairs while moving into your new apartment (which definitely did not happen to me yesterday) — something this analysis of massage therapy points out:

“Melzack and Wall (1965) theorized that the experience of pain can be reduced by competing stimuli such as pressure or cold, because of the fact that these stimuli travel along faster nervous system pathways than pain. In this way, performed with sufficient pressure would create a stimulus that interferes with the transmission of the pain stimuli to the brain, effectively ‘closing the gate’ to the reception of pain before it can be processed.”

This, along with the fact that those feel-good chemicals I mentioned earlier have a morphine-like effect that blocks pain signals from reaching the brain, could explain why this Australian study found that a 10-minute muscle massage after a workout can reduce soreness by 30 percent.

Speaking of soreness, another study shows that massages reduce the production of compounds called cytokines, which play a critical role in inflammation caused by working out or straining our muscles. The study authors also found that massages stimulate mitochondria, which are found inside our cells and convert glucose into energy to improve cell function and muscle repair. Sweet!

To that end, a massage also stimulates blood flow, which sends all kinds of reparative stuff to our muscles. “When we have an opportunity to relax, and we have someone working out those knots, kinks and tight muscles, the circulatory system starts moving again, and the nutrients from our blood are sent back into those muscles,” explains Alex, a licensed massage therapist at Massage Envy.

Perhaps a less obvious reason why massages feel good is simply because humans are programmed to enjoy being touched (only with consent, of course). Research shows that physical contact — something that has become easier to avoid in our modern, technology-driven society — can help reduce pain, lower your heart rate and boost your immune system.

Many massage therapists also incorporate aromatherapy into their sessions, and some of those fragrances (lavender, for instance) have the capacity to stimulate the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain, like serotonin and enkephalins, neurotransmitters that act as natural painkillers. Likewise, research shows that calming music, like that often played during a massage, can reduce stress on both the body and mind.

As for what kinds of massages are best, Alex recommends simply explaining to your massage therapist what kinds of problems you’re dealing with — that way, they can design a massage to better fit your needs. She also says, although your wallet might claim otherwise, unless you’ve been directed by a physician to cut back on massages, there’s no such thing as too many back rubs: “After 5,200 hours of hands-on services, I can tell you I’ve told my clients, ‘I would love to see you as often as I can get you in the door.’ There’s no such thing as too often.”

So now that we can all agree why massages feel good, I need one right now because I fell down… er, worked out, like, so freaking hard yesterday, man, high five!