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FOCUS ON YOUR HEALTH

The Magic Of Touch

•A weekly massage may seem an indulgence, but new
research suggests it can have major health benefits•

By ANNE UNDERWOOD

Michelle Huddle trims the bones and gristle from 330 chicken breasts an hour, five hours a day, on a packing line at Wampler Foods. That's a lot of chicken -and a lot of strain on Huddle's wrists. Last August her right hand started going numb from early-stage carpal tunnel syndrome, and the pain in her wrist got so bad she could barely move her hand. A family doctor gave her cortisone shots, but the company nurse had a better idea. She sent Huddle to one of the company's massage therapists, Within weeks Huddle was back on the packing line and praising her therapist as "my angel." She's not the only one. Since instituting a program of massage, job-specific exercises and ergonomics in 1990, the Virginia-based company has cut repetitive-stress injuries by 75 percent. "Absenteeism is down, too," says therapist Marilyn Alger, who initiated the massage program. "People never miss work on their massage day."

From assembly lines to corporate headquarters, Americans are discovering the magic of massage. At Boeing and Reebok, headaches, back strain and fatigue have all fallen since the companies started bringing in massage therapists. Ballerina Julie Kent of American Ballet Theatre in New York calls her weekly sessions "as essential as stage makeup or pointe shoes." Doctors have started prescribing massage to help patients manage stress and pain. And a few HMOs have begun sharing in the cost. "Massage is medicine, not merely an indulgence," says Laura Favin of Not Just a Luxury Onsite Massage in New York.

Anyone who has rubbed a stiff neck knows intuitively that massage relieves pain and muscle tension. But the benefits don't stop there. Scientists are now finding that massage can reduce blood pressure, boost the immune system, dampen harmful stress hormones and raise mood-elevating brain chemicals such as seratonin. And you can't beat massage for relaxation. Babies fall asleep faster when massaged than when rocked-and they stay asleep, rather than waking the moment Mom tiptoes away. All these factors, says Tiffany Field, founder of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami's School of Medicine, "put massage in the same category with proper diet and exercise as something that helps maintain overall health."

Many of the benefits stem directly from physical manipulation. Skilled hands can press lactic acid out of muscles after exercise, easing the pains of marathon runners and triathletes. And by dispersing fluids, massage can ease the inflammation that follows sprains and other injuries (although it shouldn't be used within the first day or two). When a woman has lymph nodes removed during a mastectomy, lymphatic fluid can collect in the arm, causing swelling. "Other than massage, there is really no good treatment," says Dr. Chester Plotkin, director of the Lymph Edema Center at the University Hospitals of Cleveland.

The effects aren't always so straightforward. Massage can also stimulate nerves that carry signals from the skin and muscles to the brain, triggering changes throughout the body. In a groundbreaking 1986 study, Field showed that premature infants who were massaged three times a day for 15 minutes gained 47 percent more weight than other preemies and were released from the hospital six days earlier. It wasn't just that the massaged kids felt more secure for being coddled. In later research, Field showed that massage (as opposed to light touch) stimulates the brain's vagus nerve, causing the secretion of food-absorption hormones, including insulin. Nerve stimulation probably explains other benefits as well. "It's like the play 'Six Degrees of Separation'," says Dr. James Dillard of Columbia University. "Every nerve cell in the body has some connection to every other nerve cell."

Even brain waves are altered by massage. In another of Field's studies, EEG measurements showed that workers who were rubbed down for 15 minutes twice a week had lower levels of alpha and beta waves ? indicating greater alertness ? than their colleagues who did relaxation exercises for the same amount of time. When both groups tackled math problems after treatment, the massage group worked faster than the relaxation group, with half as many errors. Could massage work similar wonders for children with learning problems? In Alabama, speech therapist Peggy Jones Farlow says she is using it successfully to enhance basic language and social skills in abused, neglected and handicapped kids.

Massage is not a single discipline but a family of related arts, each offering different advantages. If you're plagued by insomnia or simply need to relax, Swedish massage, with its long soothing strokes, may be all you need. But if you suffer from painful muscle spasms or need to rehabilitate an injured joint, "deep tissue" massage may be more helpful. The technique uses greater pressure to penetrate to deeper muscle groups. "Trigger-point therapy" can help relieve pain by prodding and stretching out sensitive spots that cause aches in other parts of the body. (Think of the headache you relieve by rubbing the back of your neck.) Sports massage combines all these techniques to reduce soreness, prevent injuries and treat sprains, strains and tendonitis.

Like exercise, massage does more for you if you engage in it regularly. Field uses daily massages in many of her studies-for example, to boost immunity in HIV-positive men. But even a monthly treatment can help maintain general health. "Touch is basic to survival," says Elliot Greene, past president of AMTA. That's all the excuse anyone should need to indulge


APRIL 6, 1998 NEWSWEEK MAGAZINE