When Margie Harris recommends massage to her aching or ailing friends, they all say the same thing: Sure, it's a nice little perk every once in a while, but hardly a medical necessity. She begs to differ. "I think it's the opposite," says the 30-year-old Chicago resident. "To me, it seems much more necessary than getting an annual physical." Harris has been getting a weekly massage now for about four years. Along with other lifestyle changes -- namely more exercise and a healthier diet -- she's found that her regular rubdowns help her stay healthier than she's ever been before, and now science is starting to back her up. Today, at the annual meeting of the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) in Washington, D.C. researchers discussed three important studies showing that massage helps boost the body's immune system.
Each of the studies found that people who got massage had higher levels of infection-fighting white blood cells, as well as increased activity of so-
called natural killer cells that attack disease. "This is something that massage therapists have seen in our practices for years, but we were seeing it anecdotally, informally," says Janet Kahn, president of the AMTA Foundation, which funded one of the studies. "But there was always the question of whether you were just wishing it to be
true or if it's really a physiological effect."
The first major study to link massage and improved immunity came in 1996, when doctors at the Touch Research Institute of the University of Miami showed that in a group of 29 HIV-positive men who got daily massages for one month, the majority had a significant increase in the number of natural killer cells and in the activity of those cells.
The next study found the same effect in people who were healthy, but
stressed out. Diane Zeitlin, a researcher at the Kessler Medical Rehabilitation and Education Corporation in West Orange, NJ, took blood samples from nine female medical students before and after a full-body massage. All of them were anxious about a major exam coming up the next day. While all nine women reported reduced anxiety after the massage, the blood samples showed that five of them also had a substantial increase in white blood cells and activity of natural killer cells.
In the latest study, also conducted at the Touch Research Institute, 20 breast cancer patients were randomly assigned to groups that either got massage three
times a week for five weeks or a relaxation video to watch.
In the group that got massage therapy, 80 percent showed improvements in their immune systems. In the video group, only 30 percent showed the same effect.
While all of these studies involved small groups of people, taken together they show a consistent pattern, Kahn says. "The studies all seem to show that
massage helps your body make the most of the resources it already has," she says.