Does Massage Have to Hurt to Be Effective?

Our Health & Wellness editor reports on the benefits of light-touch massages…

I have always been a deep-tissue kind of girl. Apparently tied in knots since adolescence, perhaps since birth, I have relished having hands, knuckles, and elbows press the tension out of my back and neck, tension I’ve only exacerbated as an adult by hiking, skiing, TRX, paddleboarding, and slamming a medicine ball around. But I have often found that after a deep- tissue massage, while the knots of my muscles may have loosened a smidgen, I myself am not even slightly relaxed; sometimes I even feel bruised.

When I recently had the opportunity to stay at the Ranch at Rock Creek—an elegantly rustic guest ranch that the company claims is the only five-star guest ranch in the world—in Philipsburg, Mont., I was offered the choice of two new spa treatments, from among their multiple offerings, after our full day of activity. But neither treatment seemed to be the kind of pummeling I gravitate toward. The Raindrop Therapy (90 minutes for $295) sounded like an essential-oil snooze, but at least I would smell good even if I did not experience any therapeutic benefits. I was actually sort of correct: At the hands of former Spa Manager Beth Thomas, this treatment was breathtaking in its relaxation as evidenced by my snoring by the time she lightly massaged the third of eight essential oils down my spine and into my scalp, feet, and ankles. Who knew my ankles needed relaxing? Apparently they did and were better for it. I glided into the line dancing later that night.

Not long after the transformative stay at the Ranch at Rock Creek, I visited one of the most venerable health spas in the world—Thailand’s Chiva-Som Health Spa. As Robb Report’s health and wellness editor, I typically explore the most high-intensity options, which tend to be the newest treatments and fitness trends. But at Chiva-Som, I took the route of rejuvenation and relaxation, something most of us are missing in our lives. I still pursued my daily dose of exercise to put me in my happy place—like speed walking barefoot in the powdery sand beside the Gulf of Thailand and a personal training session on TRX (one of the best I’ve taken). Following my goal for renewal, I opted for the newest treatment offered at the resort: a 50-minute back-scratch therapy ($60). My reaction on hearing about it was a simultaneous amazing/every spa should offer this! And would I really spend money on a back scratch? As a lifelong connoisseur of back scratches, however, I thought I would be the correct candidate to suss it out. Like the massage at the Ranch at Rock Creek, this was a soft touch. It began with a light, rhythmic scratching by hand; then the therapist gently ran a wooden comb down my back. By the time the final segment with a soft brush took place, I was sound asleep, so I unfortunately cannot report on how that felt. I can only convey the result—a blissful, whole-body relaxation from tension.

Most of us understand the immediate benefits of massage without reading up on the science. However, research has discovered hidden health benefits beyond muscle relaxation, particularly with regard to Swedish massage that is characterized by light pressure and long strokes. One study found massage to be effective in lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and several others have concluded that regular, weekly massage may be helpful in both easing anxiety and in boosting the immune system. (theranchatrockcreek.com, chiva-som.com)

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