Massage-like stroking boosts the immune system (in mice)

Massage therapy is one of the many forms of rehabilitation medicine that has long been used as adjunct treatment for a variety of mental and physical conditions. Indeed, massage has been reported to ease muscle pain and favour repair, to alleviate symptoms of nausea and fatigue in cancer patients, to contribute to stress reduction and increase attention and to promote growth and development. This experimental study was set up to explore the effects of massage-like therapy on the immune system of mice.

The results of the study showed an increased count of thymocytes (a type of white blood cell, which intervene in the immune response) in massaged mice in comparison to control non-stroked mice. Interestingly, significant differences were obtained only with hand-stroked mice but not with brush-stroked ones. This leads to the hypothesis that the application of a controlled pressure might not be the sole parameter that contributes to the therapeutic effect of massage.

In order to investigate potential mechanisms of actions, the researchers measured the noradrenaline concentration and the fluorescence intensity and density of noradrenergic nerve fibres in both thymus and spleen. They showed a significant reduction in fluorescence intensity in hand-stroked mice compared to control. Further tests showed a decrease in immunosuppression effects of hydrocortisone.

Interestingly, this study also attempted to measure a number of other parameters, in particular anxiety, weight change, food and water intake, etc. None of these measurements resulted in any significant difference.

This study adds to growing evidence in the literature supporting the concept of an interactive network between cutaneous nerves, the neuroendocrine axis and the immune system. Based on these theories, the skin can be genuinely considered a neuroimmunoendocrine organ that controls a wide variety of functions through the peripheral sensory nervous system, the autonomous nervous system, as well as the central nervous system.

Massage therapy research is still very much an on-going effort, and more investigations are required both at the experimental and clinical levels to fully appreciate the potential therapeutic application of massage therapy used in conjunction to standard therapy. Nevertheless, this study support innovative scientific views that stress the importance of considering the multiplicity of pathways that regulate what is commonly known as “wellbeing”.

Massage-like stroking boosts the immune system in mice
Sci. Rep. 5, 10913; doi: 10.1038/srep10913 (2015).
Major, Benjamin et al

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