Massage and Other Touch Therapies

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

Over the years, many cultures have practiced “hands-on” healing (sometimes called “spiritual” or “energy” healing). According to Greek legend, Chiron, a centaur, taught hands-on healing to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. The Christian figure, Jesus Christ has also been credited with the ability to heal by laying-on-of-hands, as has the ancient Buddha.

Today, hands-on healing is often practiced as reiki or Therapeutic Touch, therapies which are said to enhance healing by balancing and promoting the flow of energy through the body. Massage, a more active-form of hands-on bodywork, is also known for its potential to improve energy flow, as well as promote detoxification and better blood and lymph circulation. Conventional physicians have recently begun embracing hands-on treatments to help reduce stress and chronic pain, and even speeding up post-surgery recovery. Patients who have undergone heart surgery at the New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia Medical Center, for example, are offered massage and cranial touch therapies as part of their treatment.

Hands-on healing is not just for famous religious figures, reiki masters, and health practitioners, though. Parents use hands-on healing with their children all the time, whether it be hugging to mend emotional wounds or kissing scraped knees. Through the hands, anyone may transfer positive intention, healing energy, and love to another person. Massage is an especially effective hands-on healing technique because it also helps release muscular tensions resulting from energetic blocks, in addition to increasing immune function and decreasing stress.

Through various massage studies* at the Touch Therapy Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine researchers have found that massage can result in greater numbers of natural killer (NK) cells and lower levels of stress hormones, particularly cortisol. Massaged subjects at TTI experienced less anxiety, depression, incidence of migraine headaches, pain, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. Additionally, preterm infants who were massaged daily averaged greater weight gain and responsiveness, showed fewer stress behaviors, and were hospitalized, on average, six days less than babies who did not receive daily massage. Doctors have advocated infant massage, not only for neurological, digestive, and immune benefits, but to also help parents bond with their new baby.

Hands-on healing, like grounding, is such a simple healing technique that has always been at our fingertips, but from which modern life has distanced us. Technologies like e-mail and texting, and even the telephone, tend to replace our face-to-face interactions. Web sites like Facebook and MySpace have made it possible for us to have “social” lives without ever actually getting true “face time” with our cyberspace friends. In conventional medicine, diagnostic machines have steered doctors in a distant and impersonal direction. Getting to know the patient seems to have become less important than getting a machinated reading. With the greater convenience, efficiency, and precision modern technology brings comes risk of “losing touch.”

Anyone who has received a good full-body massage, shoulder rub, facial, or even a shampoo at the hairdressers knows that no machine can truly replace human touch. While sitting in the massage chair at The Sharper Image during a shopping break is probably the best reason to go to that mall, it doesn’t hold a candle to a good massage therapist. Touch is the most essential and ubiquitous sense we have. It is the first to be perceived by the newborn and is often the last to leave us. A person is said to have “Lost touch” when his or her perceptions of, and relationship to, the environment have become “unreal.” When we are able to take in nurturing touch in a therapeutic nonsexual context, we deepen our connection with our sense of self.

Different Types of Touch Therapy


In her book, Essential Reiki: A Complete Guide to an Ancient Healing Art, Reiki Master Diane Stein refers to reiki as “universal love.” Stein describes reiki as a channeling of universal life force energy from a reiki practitioner into a receiver which promotes the free flow of warm, life energy throughout the receiver’s body. Though usually offered as a massage-type therapy, reiki is inherently spiritual, involving faith in some universal love energy.

Theoretically, everyone has an inherent ability to perform reiki. However, unlike most touch therapies, reiki is transmitted, not taught: the practitioner must have received a series of “attunements” from a reiki master before his or her reiki abilities are activated and amplified (analogously, attunements are like switching on a light bulb with three progressive brightness settings respectively representing reiki levels I, II and III). Attunements open energy channels in the receiver’s body and increase the receiver’s ability to connect with and channel universal life energy. Reiki III practitioners who perform attunements on reiki students are considered reiki masters.

To perform reiki, a practitioner lightly places his or her hands on the receiver’s body in a sequence designed to bring universal life energy through the body’s energy centers, or chakras. A practitioner may opt instead to hover his or her hands several inches above the receiver’s body when channeling universal love energy (in effect, reiki is not always technically “hands on,” even though it begins this way for the student).

Therapeutic Touch

Drawing from ancient laying-on-of-hands practices, Delores Krieger, RN, Ph.D., and Dora Kunz developed Therapeutic Touch (TT) in the 1970’s to help promote the balance and flow of energy in the body to ultimately enhance healing. Through Kreiger’s experiments with nurses performing TT on sick patients she learned that TT could help increase levels of hemoglobin, the very important molecule which carries oxygen through the bloodstream. Other studies suggest that TT can help reduce osteoarthritic and migraine pain, improve wound healing, and may benefit premature infants as well as burn patients experiencing anxiety. Kreiger and Kunz currently hold a series of TT workshops, through which people can become TT practitioners, at the Pumpkin Hollow Retreat Center in Craryville, NY.

Doctors and Hands-On Healing

When it comes to treating symptoms of cardiovascular complications, oftentimes standard textbook procedures just don’t cut it with patients. Simple (and appropriate) touch, which transfers positive, loving, healing intention, or energy, may be exactly what will help improve a patient’s health. Without abandoning medical techniques learned in school and practice, a good doctor…a healer… communicates compassion, care, and comfort when visiting with patients. Perhaps fearing litigation, many doctors today are distanced or removed from their patients. They seem less inclined to connect with their patients’ emotionality or their simple need for human contact. Simple physical contact with respectful, healing intention may be what separates true “healers” from doctors.

Making Contact

Animals can teach us a lot about human contact. Have you ever noticed how a dog or cat will nuzzle up to you, wanting to be petted? How about a dog that has (unfortunately) been left alone all day? That animal will probably shower you with love when you return home, and would likely rather be touched than fed. Canine studies have shown that petting reduces heart rate after an initial increase following contact with a human being.

Touch therapy also has very stabilizing effects on humans. Touch therapy or massage can help decrease heart rate and blood pressure, while increasing endorphin release, which results in a greater relaxation and a heightened sense of well being. For some, massage can serve as a nonchemical tranquilizer with absolutely no side effects. Such pacifying effects associated with massage, as well as the comforting transmittal of positive, loving intention through touch, can be important adjunctive means of healing the heart in cardiac patients.

Massage and Mind/Body Tension

One of the best hands-on healing techniques for stress relief, massage is a powerful means of dissipating physical, mental, and emotional tension. Some of the multifaceted benefits of massage include muscle and nervous system relaxation, nurturance through touch, detoxification, pain relief, as well as lessened anxiety and other emotional release. For coronary prone, or “type A,” people, the parasympathetic nervous effects of massage can provide balance to typical sympathetic overdrive.

Emotional stress often manifests as physical tension in the body which may persist even after the stressor is gone. When chronic, the physical trapping of psycho-emotional energy can become problematic. Emotional blocks (usually created by unresolved infantile, childhood emotions) can eventually lead to “character armoring,” or spastic muscular rigidity. Character armoring can, in turn, disturb emotional health by restricting energy, mobility and self-expression. Such a cycle of psycho-emotional and physical tension may eventually manifest as disease (literally “dis-ease”).

While our conscious minds may block them out, memories are deeply buried within our musculature… through bodywork, we can not only dissipate physical rigidity, but also experience emotional release and heal old traumas: in freeing up unreleased adrenal surge or energy previously locked in chronic, defensive holding patterns, we can redirect what was once stored as tension into healing. People sometimes experience sadness, for example, during muscle manipulation and related memories may arise. Some massage therapists will encourage such emotional discovery and release while providing a safe place for its expression.

Which Massage Is Right for You?

There are many types of massage that are nurturing to the heart and body. We have different preferences when it comes to massage, depending on our body types, medical problems, emotional histories, and present needs. Keeping “different strokes for different folks” in mind, we might end up trying out several methods before finding the one (or few) that feels best for us.

Some of the more common types of massage include:

  • Swedish massage: What is generally thought of as the “classic” massage, the Swedish technique is based on the Western understanding of anatomy and physiology. This technique utilizes long, flowing strokes, pressure, kneading, friction, percussion and shaking of the musculature, as well as active and passive joint movement. Swedish massage helps dissipate muscle tension, improve circulation, facilitate detoxification, and promote relaxation.
  • Shiatsu (“finger pressure”) massage:This Japanese massage, which is rooted in Chinese medicine, is said to increase circulation of the vital energy, qi (also kiorchi), in the body. In Eastern medicine it is believed that qi flows through invisible channels, or meridians, or the body. To remove blockages of qi, a Shiatsu practitioner applies firm pressure with his or her fingers, thumbs, elbows, and even knees and feet to individual points, or tsubos, on the receiver’s body to affect energy meridians, similar to how an acupuncturist would balance qiusing miniscule needles.
  • Rolfing: is a very invasive and rigorous method which involves deep tissue work, specifically that which breaks up myofascial adhesions and reorganizes connective tissues, or fascia, surrounding and supporting bones and muscles. The Rolfing therapist will apply pressure that is firm enough to cause discomfort in order help realign posture and body structure.
  • Deep tissue massage: is like a combination of Swedish massage, Shiatsu and Rolfing, which utilizes slow strokes and deep finger and elbow pressure to help release chronic patterns of tension through the manipulation of muscles, tendons, and fascia.
  • Thai yoga massage: or traditional Thai massage, is a comprehensive therapy combining yoga, Ayurveda and manual massage. The Thai yoga therapist guides the receiver through a series of yoga postures, while employing rocking, stretching, and rhythmic muscle compression techniques. Utilizing his or her thumbs, palms, elbows, forearms, feet and knees, the therapist manipulates meridian lines to enhance energy flow throughout the body. Benefits of Thai yoga massage include improved circulation and flexibility, relief of muscular tension, and energy balance. The purpose of establishing mind/body harmony through Thai yoga massage is to facilitate self healing.
  • Hot stone massage: involves the use of hot stones as part of another massage modality such as Swedish massage. A therapist might place warmed stones on acupuncture points to create a Shiatsu effect or use the stones as massage tools, or extensions of his or her hands.
  • Neuromuscular massage: provides deep body work of muscles, ligaments, tendons, and nerves to loosen scar tissue and help balance muscle tone. The goal is to increase blood flow and release spasms of muscular tension (known as trigger points) which are the result of compressed nerves, and ultimately to reverse the effects of muscle injury or overuse.
  • Trager massage: Developed my Milton Trager, M.D., this approach resembles Reiki in that it involves the channeling of a life-giving force or energy into the receiver. Performing at a very subtle level, a Trager therapist gently and gracefully rocks the receiver’s body and limbs in a manner that communicates ease, comfort, and nurturance. The intended effect of this non-goal oriented approach is to, both release deep-seated mental and physical patterns that have resulted from psycho-emotional stress, and help re-establish healthier new patterns.

Massage not only brings relief from chronic or acute muscular tensions and body pains, it improves circulation and helps us detoxify by moving lymph. Massage and other forms of hands-on healing can also reduce emotional stress to ultimately enhance our sense of well being and help prevent hypertension and other stress-related dis-ease. As a preventative measure for health maintenance, hands-on body work can be one of the easiest and most pleasant medicines you take.

All types of hands-on therapies involve a common thread: nurturance through touch. The core element of bodywork is such unique communication without words. With us for centuries, hands-on healing has been a tool for reconnecting with ourselves and others, and for some, getting in touch with spirituality. Touch therapy is especially important in this digital age to keep us “in touch,” and help us retain energetic balance.

For more information, check out my books, Heartbreak and Heart Disease and Lower Your Blood Pressure in Eight Weeks.

References and Resources:

Stein D. Essential Reiki – A Complete Guide to an Ancient Healing Art. Berkely/Toronto; Crossing Press, 1995.

Theraputic Touch web site

*The following research abstracts at theTouch Research Institute web site:

  • Ironson, G., Field, T.M., et al. Massage therapy is associated with enhancement of the immune system’s cytotoxic capacity. International Journal of Neuroscience, 1996;84:205-217.
  • Hernandez-Reif, M., Field, et al. High blood pressure and associated symptoms were reduced by massage therapy. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 2000;4:31-38.
  • Hernandez-Reif, M., Dieter J. et al. Migraine headaches are reduced by massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 1998;96:1-11.
  • Field, T., Schanberg, S. M., et al. Tactile/kinesthetic stimulation effects on preterm neonates. Pediatrics, 1986;77:654 658.
  • Field, T., Scafidi, F., & Schanberg, S. Massage of preterm newborns to improve growth and development. Pediatric Nursing, 1987;13(6):385 387.
  • Scafidi, F., Field, T., Schanberg, S. Factors that predict which preterm infants benefit most from massage therapy. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 1993;14(3):176-180.
  • Hernandez-Reif, M., Diego, M. & Field, T. Preterm infants show reduced stress behaviors and activity after 5 days of massage therapy. Infant Behavior & Development, 2007;30:557-61.

Robinson, N, Donaldson J. and Lorenc A. Shiatsu – A Review of the Evidence, available at the Shiatsu Society UK website at

Liskin J. Principles of the Trager Approach:Part I. From Moving Medicine: The Life and Work of Milton Trager, MD, 1996 available at

Dr Oz on Complimentary Medicine: Challenge the Status Quo

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