Massage As Medicine

In 2002, Cook – a 58-year-old resident of Hudson, Wisconsin, who once worked in marketing – was diagnosed with a rare illness. He had cardiac sarcoidosis, a condition in which clusters of white blood cells coagulate together and react against a foreign substance in the body, scarring the heart in the process. The disease damaged his heart so badly it went into failure. The doctors said there was nothing they could do, and Cook’s name was put on an organ transplant waiting list.

The wait stretched on for more than a decade. “I probably had the heart capacity of an 80-year-old,” recalls Cook, who was given medication and a pacemaker yet still struggled daily with his sickness. “It wasn’t pushing the blood out to my extremities because it was so weak. It got worse and worse, and I started to look for anything I could find to help my circulation.”

Cook’s cardiologist suggested he try massage therapy. Though he was initially skeptical, Cook – whose son is a physician – says his doubts vanished after several appointments.

“It really helped the circulation to my fingers, toes and legs,” he says. “I kept with it because I saw some pretty significant benefits.” Today, Cook credits the massages – along with stress reduction and a healthy diet – with allowing him to stay healthy and physically active until he finally received his new heart in 2013.

Studies suggest Cook’s cardiologist was onto something – massage does indeed enhance blood flow and improve general circulation. And experts agree it yields additional benefits, too, ranging from the mental to the physical.

Once viewed as a luxury, massage is increasingly recognized as an alternative medical treatment. According to a recent consumer survey sponsored by the American Massage Therapy Association, 77 percent of respondents said their primary reason for receiving a massage in the past year was medical or stress-related. Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that medical centers nationwide now offer massage as a form of patient treatment. The American Hospital Association recently surveyed 1,007 hospitals about their use of complementary and alternative medicine therapies, and more than 80 percent said they offered massage therapy. Upwards of 70 percent said they used massage for pain management and relief.

"The medical community is more accepting of massage therapy than ever before," says Jerrilyn Cambron, board president of the Massage Therapy Foundation. "Many massage therapists now have active, fruitful relationships with conventional care providers."

Should you integrate massage therapy into your wellness routine?