Effects Of Massage Theropy On The Central

Nervous System Essay, Research Paper QUESTION: “What general effects does massage have on the parasympathetic and sympathetic divisions of the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system? Also discuss the general relationship between the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland and various target organs.”

Nervous System Essay, Research Paper


“What general effects does massage have on the parasympathetic and sympathetic divisions of the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system? Also discuss the general relationship between the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland and various target organs.”


This essay explores the effects of a variety of massage approaches on the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system. Swedish massage, energy balancing methods, aromatherapy, lymphatic drainage, Bindegewebsmassage, serial connective tissue massage and general deep tissue massage methods are all considered in answering the question. The aim is (where possible) to identify scientifically validated claims of massage as well as to explore the probable or perceived benefits massage may have.

In the words of Tritton, (1993) “claims about massage are sometimes outcomes of rigorous research, but more often-than-not, they are wishful thinking or hypotheses based on the anatomical structures and physiology of the body. … unfortunately, there is very little to be found in the literature on the physiological effects of massage and very few scientific studies have been undertaken in this area.” Furthermore, the small amount of empirical research that does exist, more often than not, does not define the kind of touch or massage methodology employed, and massage is often rolled in with a range of other therapeutic methods (Westland 1993).

Nevertheless, interest in massage as a valid means of therapy is on the increase and in particular in the West, where stress is one of the most commonly experienced states, massage has a clear role to play in reducing stress and helping people learn to recognise early stressful symptoms as compared with a more relaxed and less stressed state. With pharmacology, medical technology and the ever-increasing depersonalisation of patients in conventional Western medicine, massage, and related healing approaches involving touching (body work) are rapidly on the increase.


The human body is a finely tuned interaction of organs and systems. “the close inter-relationship between the somatic, autonomic and endocrine systems makes it impossible for pathologic changes to take place in any one structure without causing adaptive changes in other structures.” Edner, quoted in Chaitow (1983). As early as 1928, Heartman described changes in the connective tissue within the dermatomes of the heart. His findings demonstrated that these changes were associated with heart symptoms which subsequently cleared up upon treatment of this connective tissue (Chaitow 1983). If this research is valid, then it stands to reason that massage (soft tissue manipulation) through improving circulation, nervous stimulation etc can have a marked effect on the body. Therefore assertions that massage can induce relaxation and stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system seem quite plausible.


The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a system of nerves and ganglia concerned with the distribution and reception of predominantly involuntary impulses to the heart (changing its rate and force of beating), smooth muscle (vasoconstriction or dilation of arterioles) and glands (increasing or decreasing their secretion).

The Autonomic Nervous System is made up of two sub-divisions – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. While the sympathetic nervous system serves all parts of the body, the parasympathetic Nervous System is confined to the head and trunk. The former is generally associated with the fight/flight response while the latter is characterised by its role in sedating the body and restoring it to the resting state it was in prior to sympathetic stimulation. The ANS is a modifier of activity; either increasing or decreasing it. thus the heart can beat without innervation from the sympathetic fibres of the ANS, but its rate of beating does not change as a result of excitement or fear levels.

Anatomically, the autonomic nervous system differs from the somatic nervous system in that it has two effector neurones into the central nervous system. It also uses nor-epinephrine (nor-adrenalin) in addition to acetyl choline as a neurotransmitter.


To demonstrate the difficulty in getting an absolute answer on the actual rather than the deduced effect massage has on the ANS, quotes are provided from relatively up-to-date texts which attempt to objectively report the effects of massage. “it is obvious that massage stimulates the sensory and proprioceptive nerve fibres of the skin and underlying tissues, and that these messages pass along the afferent fibres to the spinal chord. From there it is conceivable that these stimuli may disperse through the central and autonomic nervous systems – producing various effects in any zones supplied from the same segment of the spinal chord. … Such reactions are called reflex effects” (Tappan, 1988). Massage bombards the skin and subcutaneous tissues with stimuli, and this not only produces a local effect but may exert either a stimulating or soothing effect on the body as a whole – depending on the type of massage technique used (Tritton, 1993).

Swedish massage, particularly effleurage and other slow stroking movements are thought to have a sedating effect leading to activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Hard research about the actual role massage has here is not extensive, but it appears that massage may stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system – stimulating the Vagus nerve to slow down the heart rate and increasing peristalsis (Tritton, 1993). Slowed breathing, reduced heart rate and increased abdominal/digestive sounds all suggest that this could be the case.

However, in one study looking at the autonomic effects of a general back massage (Barr and Taslitz, 1970) (mainly effleurage movements) the result was that compared to baselines this routine caused an increase in sympathetic response – not what we would expect. The indices measured were heart rate, respiration, galvanic skin resistance, skin temperature, body temperature and pupil dilation.

Another study (Kisner and Taslitz, 1967) was primarily investigating connective tissue massage effects on autonomic activity, but used general effleurage stroking as one of its control situations. The second control situation was no stimulation. In this study, both the connective tissue and the effleurage measures resulted in increased sympathetic activity, but the sympathetic activity was less pronounced in the effleurage group. While clients and practitioners subjectively observe relaxation and presumably parasympathetic effects from slow relaxing massage strokes, it is understandable that (connected to wires and a variety of electronic monitoring equipment) subjects would be more stressed and have greater sympathetic NS indicators than a trusting and private massage session.

Faster, firmer and more percussive massage techniques are often used to revitalise and stimulate the client. Sports masseurs have to take care not to relax and slow a sports person prior to a race, and a careful balance of massage techniques are generally applied in pre-event situations. Of course, most pre-event massage is for the purpose of stretching muscles and increasing blood flow to the muscles being used in the event. A sportsperson who is tense and stressed may be calmed through a more soothing massage to a small extent.

Massage also may cause vasodilation in the skin and muscles by stimulating receptors of the sympathetic nervous system. Deep tissue massage often leads to a sense of relief and peace during or after the event – even if some of the deep tissue work is painful at the time of treatment. Research by Kisner and Taslitz, (1967) into the ANS effects of Elisabeth Dicke’s Bindegewebsmassage (a special form of connective tissue massage) found that this technique caused some sympathetic stimulation during and after treatment, although proponents of the method have traditionally claimed that it works through stimulation of the parasympathetic responses. A different study (Reed and Hald, 1988) of serial connective tissue massage to elderly and middle aged subjects found no significant sympathetic or parasympathetic response.


Just lying in a quiet room, closing one’s eyes, and trying to stop thinking of those things that are troubling will have some effect on the ANS. Certainly, a restful few minutes can make one feel a bit better than before.

Many of the endocrine and ANS operations are not easily altered through conscious intent, but hypnosis, meditation and even massage-induced relaxation can often allow these unconscious systems to be modified by a person.

Biofeedback is an example of a common modern method by which people are able to monitor and then modify various body systems and processes such as heart rate, blood sugar level, blood pressure and brainwave frequency. Apparatus used to monitor the body’s various states and visual, auditory or combined audiovisual output systems are used to let the person know what states various systems of their body are in. While biofeedback is relatively new, profound results have been documented for practitioners of various systems of meditation. These disciplines have been practised for thousands of years, but great discipline and practise are required to elicit body changes compared to shorter training times in biofeedback situations.

“By learning to induce a relaxation response, subjects can modify the way in which stressful events affect the sympathetic nervous system”. Studies suggest that the relaxation response decreases the bodies response to norepinephrine. (Soliman, Schmidt and Adragna, 1990). Thus it is now recognised that it is possible to modify the responses of the ANS through operant conditioning techniques.