Each July, the Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals hosts “EveryBody Deserves a Massage Week.” The event was created in 1995 with the dream of giving everyone access to the physical and mental health benefits of massage therapy, regardless of their ability to pay. The advantages of massage therapy are numerous and range from relieving tension and reducing the frequency of headaches to easing the effects of osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia.
Given the health benefits of massage, it comes as no surprise that a survey taken last July found that 50 million Americans discussed massage therapy with their primary care physicians during the previous year, according to the American Massage Therapy Association. For now, massage therapy isn’t covered by many health insurance plans but about two-thirds of American adults believe that it should be. With so many people turning to massage therapy as a health care treatment, we asked the question, is it possible that massage could help with infertility, too?
How do massages affect your body?
For centuries, people have turned to massage therapy to alleviate stress, muscle pain, and a variety of other ailments. Today, you don’t have to book a day at a luxury spa to experience the benefits of massage for yourself. You can find massage therapists at health clubs, doctors’ offices, hospitals, and maybe even your place of work. There are a few different types of massage, but two of the most common are:
- Swedish massage—One of the most popular types of massage, Swedish massage aims to relax the entire body. A massage therapist rubs the muscles using long, gliding strokes and circular movements, as well as a combination of vibration and tapping. This is a more gentle type of massage. Similar to Swedish massage is the sports massage, geared towards athletes. This type of massage is intended to prevent and treat athletic injuries.
- Deep tissue massage—Deep tissue massage is similar to Swedish massage, but it uses more pressure to treat chronic muscle tension. This type of massage focuses on the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue. When deep tissue massage is focused on a specific area to relieve soreness from injury or overuse, it is called a trigger point massage.
More and more, massage therapy is becoming recommended by physicians, chiropractors, and physical therapists as part of complementary and alternative medicine. So what exactly is it about massages that makes them so good for your health? Massages can:
- Enhance the function of your immune system—In a study on the effect of touch on humans, massage therapy was found to improve immune system function by increasing the levels of natural killer cells in the body. These cells help fight the spread of certain tumors and infections while limiting tissue damage.
- Improve blood circulation—Blood circulation supplies your brain and other organs with oxygen. Good blood circulation can help with everything from cell growth to skin appearance. A 2014 study found that massage therapy—Swedish massage, specifically—helps increase healthy blood flow, both in people who are recovering from rigorous physical exercise and in people that haven’t exercised at all. It was also found that the beneficial effects weren’t limited to the area that was being massaged but that overall blood circulation improved after subjects received massage therapy.
- Reduce muscle pain—When your muscles are sore, you probably instinctively massage the affected area to relieve the ache. Putting that type of pressure on your muscles, whether they’re fatigued from a workout or sore from sitting at a desk all week, can help relieve pain and tension. Massage therapy decreases muscle pain after exercise by reducing inflammation and promoting tissue regeneration.
- Impact hormone production—We all know that massages are supposed to feel great, but did you know that there is a biological reason that can explain why you leave your massage session feeling so relaxed and optimistic? Studies have found massage therapy to be an effective way to decrease levels of cortisol produced by your adrenal glands. Cortisol is useful in regulating your blood pressure and sleep cycles, among other things, but too much of this hormone can lead to weight gain, headaches, stress, and anxiety.
Massage therapy has also been found to increase levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. This helps to stabilize your mood and improve your memory, attention, and motivation. The combined effects on cortisol, dopamine, and serotonin make massage therapy a treatment option that can help increase attentiveness and mitigate effects of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Can your mental health affect your fertility?
One of the most common reasons people schedule a massage is to alleviate the effects of stress and anxiety. While trying to conceive, it’s normal to experience a wide range of emotions. The process brings a lot of focus to your physical health; it’s equally important to take care of your mental health during this time. While no one expects you to be happy and hopeful all of the time, dealing with chronic negative mental states may have an impact on your fertility.
A 2016 study found that psychological stress may actually impact the physiology, or function, of the ovaries. The study authors recommend lifestyle changes to decrease stress in order to avoid deterioration of egg quality and increase your chances of conceiving.
In addition to potentially affecting your egg quality, stress has the ability to affect ovulation schedules. You may ovulate later than you think or, in some cases of extreme stress, you may not ovulate at all. When you’re trying to conceive, it is extremely important to know when you’re ovulating so that you know the best times to have sex with your partner. Having sex during the most fertile days of your cycle is recommended for the best chances of conceiving.
Stress and male factor infertility
Male factor infertility can be impacted by stress too. Stress and anxiety can lower the concentration and motility of sperm in semen, as well as the percentage of normally-shaped sperm. Sperm quality and quantity are vital to a couple’s chance of conceiving. Testosterone production, which affects male sex drive as well as overall reproductive health, can also be negatively impacted by stress and anxiety. Stress management, whether through massage therapy or other lifestyle changes, is recommended for people experiencing male factor infertility.
Can massage therapy improve fertility?
The short answer? It depends. During your fertility research, you may have come across the subject of fertility massages. Many claim that specifically-created “fertility massages” can increase reproductive health by various methods. However, there is little evidence that these “fertility massages” affect fertility any more than regular massages do.
There is evidence, however, that massage therapy may be effective in increasing the probability of success for couples undergoing In Vitro Fertilization. Women who received massages before embryo implantation were more likely to have successful IVF cycles. Study authors attributed this effect to decreased levels of stress, reduced uterine contractions, and increased abdominal blood flow in the women that received massage therapy.
Though many health benefits are attributed to massage therapy, it is meant to supplement, not replace, your regular medical care. If you’re thinking of adding massage therapy into your routine, make sure you talk with your doctor beforehand. Find a massage therapist that is licensed and insured, and talk with them about your medical history and any prior conditions.
While you’re trying to conceive, it can be easy to neglect any self-care that isn’t directly related to your fertility. Don’t fall into that trap. It’s true that we don’t yet have proof that massage therapy directly improves fertility in couples trying to conceive but you shouldn’t rush to cancel your massage appointment just yet.
Massage therapy has the potential to improve your quality of life in a variety of ways, some of which may have an indirect impact on your fertility. This July’s EveryBody Deserves a Massage Week is a great opportunity for you to reach out to a massage therapist in your area. Making improvements to your overall health is always recommended for couples that are trying to conceive. As it turns out, scheduling regular massages may help you do just that.