Massage no better at beating stress than deep breathing and soft music
Having a massage is no better at beating stress than home relaxation techniques like breathing deeply and listening to soothing music, a study has found
People who lay taking deep breaths in a dimly lit room with soft music emerged just as relaxed as those who underwent massages or sessions of thermotherapy, in which their arms and legs were wrapped with warm towels, researchers found.
While all three methods are equally effective at easing anxiety, simple relaxation techniques can be practised at home for free, whereas massage and thermotherapy sessions can cost €90 an hour.
Scientists at the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle said the feeling of relaxation people experience during a massage could be a product of the soothing music played during the session, rather than the treatment itself.
During the study, 68 patients suffering from anxiety were split into groups and given 10 sessions of one of the three forms of alternative therapy.
All three treatments were conducted in a dimly-lit room with soft music, and participants were instructed to breath deeply to help them relax.
Unlike the two control treatments, the massage was specifically designed to enhance the function of the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls muscle contraction, and relieve symptoms of anxiety including knotted muscles.
When asked by researchers to rate their anxiety levels after the sessions, all three of the groups said their symptoms had decreased by about 40pc by the end of the 12-week treatment period — and by about 50pc three months later.
As well as a decline in anxiety levels, patients reported fewer symptoms of depression and less worry and general disability.
Karen Sherman, a senior researcher at the Seattle-based health co-operative, said: "We were surprised to find that the benefits of massage were no greater than those of the same number of sessions of 'thermotherapy' or listening to relaxing music.
“This suggests that the benefits of massage may be due to a generalised relaxation response.
"Treatment in a relaxing room is much less expensive than the other treatments like massage or thermotherapy, so it might be the most cost-effective option for people with generalised anxiety disorder who want to try a relaxation-oriented complementary medicine therapy."
The findings were published in the journal Depression and Anxiety.
Massage is among the most popular forms of alternative therapy for anxiety and practitioners claim it decreases tension in the muscles and improves blood circulation.
But scientists at the University of Ontario in Canada claimed last year that massage actually cuts blood circulation to the muscles and hinders the removal of lactic acids by as much as 25pc.
Proponents of the treatment say it is impossible to measure the its benefits because of wide variations in the techniques used and the ability of practitioners.
Thermotherapy is designed to ease muscle tension by intermittently wrapping hot pads and towels around the arms and legs, while relaxation therapy simply involves lying down and breathing deeply with mood music in playing in the background.