Friday, September 24, 2010

Massaging the news so that it’s shocking, brand new news rather than just neato news

A short piece called “Regimens: Massage benefits are more than skin deep” is the most emailed story on the New York Times website today.

And apparently all kinds of people are completely surprised, since, according to the article, so were the researchers!

At least, that's what we’re led to believe with snippets like,

“Does a good massage do more than just relax your muscles? To find out, researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles…”


“To their surprise, the researchers, …, found that a single session of massage caused biological changes.”

Listen everybody, this was not shocking to any of these researchers nor to anyone who understands that if you become relaxed, less stressed, or happier, THAT’S YOUR BIOLOGY CHANGING.

Not only that, but the importance of massage and touch has been known for a long time, not just by scientists but by introductory psychology students.

Ever heard of Harry Harlow’s monkey experiments?

Touch is not just love but it's also life.

Now what IS ACTUALLY PROBABLY news here (but I'm not an expert in this field of research so I'm not sure), is that they found differences between the effects of Swedish massage and “light” massage.


Massage therapists and massage connoisseurs probably already knew that there were different outcomes to different methods, but these scientists actually measured what those could be (going beyond merely interviewing massage-getters) by sampling hormones and immune system components in the volunteers’ blood.

“Volunteers who received Swedish massage experienced significant decreases in levels of the stress hormone cortisol in blood and saliva, and in arginine vasopressin, a hormone that can lead to increases in cortisol. They also had increases in the number of lymphocytes, white blood cells that are part of the immune system. Volunteers who had the light massage experienced greater increases in oxytocin, a hormone associated with contentment, than the Swedish massage group, and bigger decreases in adrenal corticotropin hormone, which stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol.”

Now that the effects can be better sampled and quantified, as made clear by this research, maybe more people will search for and apply effective (e.g. Swedish or light) "alternative and complementary" well-being practices.

All right, now after using all those CAPITAL LETTERS, I need a massage….


Holly Dunsworth said...

P.S. Watching that baby monkey cuddling on that fake mother breaks my heart.

Anne Buchanan said...

I know, and sucking its thumb for comfort.

Ken Weiss said...

My reaction is not very positive, and may just be my typical crankiness. But in a time when 15% or less of research proposals are funded, given the real health problems we face, one an ask why this kind of research was funded.

And whether a whopping 53 individuals in two categories constitutes satisfactory science.

Or whether the pop-sci hyping of the result is merited.

Or whether authors should be expected to know their business. The Harlow research was done around 40 (yes, fourty) years ago, and was not kept a national secret at the time. These massagonists may not have been born at the time, but should know the major contributions of their field.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Ken, the scientists didn't write the NYT piece, so I don't agree with your last paragraph. I also think it's good to know the biological effects of things like massage... this way we're not entirely dependent on drugs, or at least feel like we should be. I think this type of stuff is super-important for helping people to understand that they're (a) biological beings and (b) culture sometimes blocks healthy habits.

Holly Dunsworth said...

..."culture" refering to anti-touch and anti-pampering pressure.

Ken Weiss said...

Well I don't want to be disputacious, but I guess I will anyway.

I won't argue about the value of the information, though to me this is hyper-technologized and not worth the cost. Nor would I dispute the value of the approach relative to lifetime maintenance meds, etc.

I also totally take your point that the NYTimes was the news source, and that doesn't and can't be referred to the authors of the paper being reported. But....I have now read the paper.

It was a single-session 45-minute comparison, of 'healthy' adults (based on rather superficial, if standard, criteria) 18-45 years old, 29 deep-massaged and 24 controls with 'light' massage. 24 male and 29 females were tested. This was done from 3 to 7 pm, with various exclusion criteria (e.g., no shift-workers, no drunks or druggies at the time of testing). The subjects were tapped for blood samples at 8 timed test points, from which a large number of things were measured, in the immune system mainly. Roughly 18 tests were done. At the 5% significance level, one would expect about 1 to be significant. Two were. The results were described in terms of things that were different between light and deep massage groups, but most of those were not nearly statistically significant if my quick scan of this paper is not mistaken. Note that there was no kind of 'blindness' in the study: each subject know if s/he was given light or deep massage and knew it was a study of the effects of massage.

I totally appreciate and accept your points, and their importance. I'm not at all skeptical that massage may work, and may have these 'hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal' benefits.

But this paper is not science. Drillions of variables are inadequately controlled. To me, this is not much different, though couched in technical-sounding terms, from simply asking people if they feel better. That would be more important and more convincing to me than a bunch of white-cell count measures and the like. Even the title calls it 'preliminary'.

Holly Dunsworth said...

So the NYT should have ignored this and hopefully it's a pilot study for a future larger and better controlled study.

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, I'd say that. I realize that to put roadblocks in the way of mainstream Big Pharma's efforts to have everyone be on lifetime maintenance drugs--all of us always on Happiagra pills--is difficult. Some counter-science studies might be needed. But I think in a sane society, we shouldn't need that kind of counter-measure, if massage simply makes people feel good (which we know--from scientific studies!--is reflected in physiological measures).

Holly Dunsworth said...

yay! Some hope on a Friday from Ken! Cheers!

Geoffrey Vasile said...

Personally I'm all for researching the obvious --perhaps now I can finally pursue a lucrative career in science; now who wants to fund my multimillion dollar project to find out if legs improve standing?

Holly Dunsworth said...


Oh I see! Finally an explanation for why it's been impossible to get an undergrad to takeover and finish my project testing whether we know the backs of our hands like the backs of our hands. Luckily that one doesn't require any resources above and beyond what's already available at any basic university.

Ken Weiss said...

And Geoffrey's study wouldn't have a leg to stand on?

Holly Dunsworth said...


Tery said...


occamseraser said...

I had a 60 minute Chinese massage today. 20 min upper body massage to start (in a sitting position) while soaking my feet in hot water. Ahh. Then 40 supine minutes of leg (sensu stricto) and foot massage. Mind-alteringly good. I wished I had a 3rd foot and leg when it ended all too soon :(
It put the dama in my rama dama ding dong. I wish I'd taken a blood sample immediately after. It was like a short holiday.

Holly Dunsworth said...

they may have taken some blood: how much did it cost? ;)

Ken Weiss said...

Check the back or side door of your masseur's (masseuse's?) shop. Maybe they're running a blood donation business on the side.

occamseraser said...

$34 plus $10 tip
She had strong, knowledgable hands ;)