When a bruise or muscle strain causes pain, what’s the first thing that most people do? Before they even say, “Ouch,” they grab the injured area and rub it. Instinctively, folks know that massage makes them feel better.

Massage is certainly among the oldest forms of medicine. It’s depicted in 15,000­ year-old cave paintings discovered in the Pyrenees mountains. And 3,000 years ago, it was being prescribed by Chinese and Ayurvedic physicians for an array of ailments. Even Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, once said, “The physician must be experienced in many things, but most assuredly in rubbing.”

With the birth of Christianity, the use of massage and therapeutic touch took on religious overtones. The New Testament says that Jesus cured the blind by touching their eyes, and the lame by touching their legs: “He laid his hands on them one by one and healed them” (Luke 4:40). Later, priests began laying their hands on the sick. When the practice fell from favor in the Church, it was adapted by the kings of France and England, who used “the Royal Touch” to treat ailing supplicants.

The Rebirth of an Ancient Healing Art

Despite its history of healing, massage didn’t seem to fit amid the science and technology of modern Western medicine. But that began to change in the mid-1970s with the pioneering work of Tiffany Field, Ph.D., professor of psychology, pediatrics, and psychiatry at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

Dr. Field became interested in medical care for premature infants when her own daughter was born prematurely. Because preemies have underdeveloped immune systems, they are kept in special isolation cribs called Isolettes to protect them from infection-especially infection spread by human contact. Seeing her daughter in an Isolette bothered Dr. Field. She was familiar with research involving infant monkeys that showed impaired growth and other problems when they were deprived of maternal contact. She became so concerned that a lack of human contact might retard her daughter’s development that she launched a study to find out.

In consultation with the hospital staff, Dr. Field divided the preemies in Isolettes into two groups. One group received gentle massage for 15 minutes three times a day, while the other group did not. The results were dramatic: The babies who were given massages gained 47 percent more weight and went home 6 days sooner than the babies who weren’t. “Everyone benefited,” she recalls. “The children became healthier faster, and the hospital saved $10,000 per child in preemie care.”

Dr. Field’s personal interest quickly became her professional passion. She founded the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, the nation’s leading center for research into the health benefits of massage. “We don’t fully understand the biochemistry of touch, but we do know that human beings need it,” she explains. “Medicine is just beginning to rediscover the tremendous power of massage.”

Good for Body and Mind

Studies at the Touch Research Institute and elsewhere have revealed some amazing information about the health benefits of massage. For starters, massage has shown promise as an excellent immune booster. When a small group of senior volunteers got 10-minute back rubs, they showed significant increases in their levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA), an immune system protein. IgA acts as the body’s first line of defense against the common cold.

Then, too, massage has been identified as an effective treatment for scores of common health problems and concerns, ranging from tension headaches and childbirth pain to anxiety, depression, and cancer pain.

One Therapy, Many Styles

Therapeutic massage takes many forms. In the United States, the word massage typically refers to some variation of Swedish massage. This particular style was developed about 150 years ago by Peter Ling, a Swede who integrated ancient Asian massage arts with a Western understanding of anatomy and physiology. Swedish massage came to the United States around the turn of the twentieth century and has served as the massage touchstone, so to speak, ever since.

Swedish massage combines long, gliding strokes using the whole hand or the heel of the palm with kneading strokes using the fingers. Depending on the preferences of the giver and the receiver, the strokes vary in pressure. Some people prefer light, feathery strokes that gently push on the major muscle groups. Others enjoy deeper strokes with firm, rolling pressure resembling the kneading of bread.

Less well-known in the United States, but building a loyal following, is shiatsu. In Japanese, the word shiatsu means “finger pressure.” This style of massage is a Japanese adaptation of acupuncture. Like acupuncture, it’s based on the idea that life energy (called ki in Japanese, qi in Chinese) circulates throughout the body along pathways called meridians. When this energy is blocked, shiatsu experts believe, people become ill. Applying finger pressure at specific points along the meridians frees blocked energy and reestablishes healthy flow.

Shiatsu practitioners must learn two things: where the pressure points are located and how they should be stimulated. Finding the points requires a good shiatsu chart-and lots of practice. The massage technique is relatively easy. It involves moving the thumb or forefmger in a penetrating circular pattern for about 30 seconds. Manipulating the points in this way produces tenderness, tingling, or mild discomfort, but without pain.