Massage Therapy and the Immune Response in Healthy Adults

By Richard H. Adler, Attorney at Law

A team of researchers recently concluded a pilot study evaluating the effects of massage therapy on immune functions of healthy females. The study investigated the premise that massage therapy positively effects the immune system. In July 2002, “The Effect of Massage Therapy on the Human Immune Response in Healthy Adults” was published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. Using a single case experimental ABAB design, two subjects received a relaxing massage during the experimental phases (B) and no massage during the baseline phases (A). Both human subjects had 50 ml. of blood taken once a week and evaluated for T and B lymphocyte mitogen-induced proliferation, enumeration of T and B lymphocyte subsets, quantification of immunoglobulins A, G and M (IgA, IgG, IgM) and cortisol levels. Trait and state anxiety levels were also examined.

The results of this study pose exciting challenges in psychoneuroimmunology. Specifically, the conclusions drawn by the authors,

Demonstrated a consistent and statistically significant increase in the proliferative response of both T and B lymphocytes during the massage therapy B phases compared with receiving no massage. There was also a statistically significant increase in the levels of serum IgG as a result of massage therapy…..While statistical significance was not reached for any of the other immunoassays, a trend towards the experimental hypothesis was shown for IgM.

These results suggest that cellular immunocompetence may be enhanced by massage therapy. It is possible that increased T and B cell function enables the immune system to be more prepared to combat disease (Kiecolt-Glaser et al. 1985) and have an increased capacity to augment a more effective response to a challenge by an infectious agent. Another perspective is that relaxation, in the form of massage therapy, may reduce immunosuppression, since stress is related to immunosuppression.

The results demonstrated significantly increased levels of serum IgG during massage therapy compared to the control periods for both adult subjects. IgG is the major immunoglobulin in human serum, accounting for approximately 75% of the normal serum immunoglobulin (Hyde 1992). It is the major antibody produced in the secondary immune response. The increased levels of serum IgG suggest that regular massage may assist in the defence of infections that may result from repeated exposure to the causative organism. IgG is also the major opsonising immunoglobulin in phagocytosis. The process by which antigens can be ingested and destroyed by antigen presenting cells (phagocytosis) is greatly enhanced if the antigen is coded or opsonised with specific IgG antibodies (Staines et al. 1993). Thus, an increased level serum IgG enables an individual to more effectively respond to a secondary exposure to an antigen. Levels of serum IgM demonstrated a consistent trend towards significance (P=0.06). Given this consistent trend, a statistical significance of PThis research suggests that massage therapy favorably influences the human immune response. At the same time it is important to point out that cortisol (adrenal cortex stress hormone) levels did not significantly reduce with massage. Therefore, it is doubtful that the enhanced function of the immune system was a consequence of reduced stress.

Though further research is needed to broaden the parameters of the study, massage therapy has established a significant beachhead as a vital treatment for general health as well as injury from trauma.