Massage Therapy

Posted on in Healthy Living by William Mathis

Human Touch Is the
Oldest Medicine


Touch is the oldest medicine. Powerfully effective and steeped in ancient tradition, bodywork has always been humans’ most essential healing approach. Now the time-tested practice is as popular and relevant as ever.

Asthma almost killed me when I was five. I woke up in the night unable to draw breath. This stressed my parents, who rushed me to the ER. A sleepless night of epinephrinefueled hallucinations followed, but at least I could inhale thereafter. After a second occurrence I began to see an allergist. In addition to the shots, which I didn’t care for, and the drugs, which I hated, the allergist prescribed massage—specifically percussion. He suggested that my parents do karate chops all over my back. After my parents beat me like a drum, I could breathe again. The percussion massage helped clear my lungs, and unlike my allergy meds, felt great! This was my first experience of complimentary (as opposed to alternative) medicine and I liked it.

The power of touch is present when our lives begin. The birth experience welcomes us into the world with a massage via the birth canal, stimulating the immune system. Babies who are held, hugged, cuddled, and generally lovingly touched thrive, develop faster, and are measurably happier than those who are not. As the history of early 20th-century orphanages sadly shows, babies who were not touched and held sicken, weaken, and often die. Fortunately, when the problem was recognized and additional caregivers were hired, the orphans’ health improved dramatically.

Touch is a need. We can endure a lack of air for seconds to minutes, go without water for days, starve for food for weeks if we must. How long can we go without touch before we are permanently damaged? Loss of another sense—sight or hearing, for example—can be coped with and overcome, but loss of the sense of touch can be psychologically devastating.

Our experience of healing touch is primal. Other mammals also touch, cuddle, pummel for milk, and lick their wounds. You don’t have to teach a human child to use touch to relieve pain: they will rub, blow on, or shake their boo-boos to reduce the pain without prompting. They may not understand the neurology involved but they eagerly use it.

Every human culture makes use of therapeutic touch. Perhaps the principles were written down or taught formally but perhaps not. Either way, they are ubiquitous in places such as Egypt; China; Japan; Thailand; Hawaii; indigenous North, Central, and South America; Europe; Africa; Australia; and the list goes on. One of the amazing things about the modern world is that a person can now likely receive (or even learn to perform) Hawaiian lomilomi, Thai nuad boran, a Swedish session, or an American-made sports massage without even leaving their hometown.

The ancient traditions speak often of the healing power of touch. The Bible speaks of “laying on hands,” while Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, taught that massage was essential to the welltrained physician. The foundational text of Chinese medicine, the Nei Jing, extensively discusses therapeutic massage. Currently, modern scientific research is validating what the ancient healing traditions have long said about human touch and the power of the body to heal itself. The results are mind-blowing: massage affects us down to the genetic level. Recent research shows that massage therapy creates an epigenetic effect in muscle cells, turning off the cellular mechanisms that unleash inflammation. That means less pain, quicker recovery from injury, improved movement, and better athletic performance.

hands on the back making massage

Modernity brings blessings as well as curses, such as the diseases of affluence. These are lifestyle diseases such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and depression—together they constitute some of our most pressing health problems. Chronic inflammation and chronic stress are major components of these ailments. Inflammation and stress exacerbate the symptoms of a dizzying variety of diseases. Bodywork can effectively reduce both stress and inflammation and thus help support the body’s self-healing mechanisms. This is a strong antidote to some of culture’s most threatening health woes—and with virtually no side effects!

No drug can match that efficacy. The oldest medicine is still the best medicine.

Massage is not a panacea and is not appropriate for every ailment. If you have a serious health condition, consult your doctor before receiving massage therapy. However, the list of conditions for which massage is indicated continues to grow. For example, just a few years ago, massage was not recommended for people with cancer, but recent research has shown that it can be not only safe, but effective at reducing stress, pain, fatigue, nausea, and depression. It was shown that the healing touch raises spirits. Stated broadly, when we feel better, we heal better.

If you are reading this article, odds are that you have a spiritual center to your life and an interest in helping improve the world. Perhaps you are considering a life path in the healing arts and drawn to a right livelihood in harmony with your values. Massage therapy is one of the fastest growing careers. It is a profession that by its nature can’t be outsourced overseas or replaced by robots. As the practice of massage therapy makes deeper inroads into mainstream consciousness, the opportunities expand. A beautiful and healthy trend—the oldest medicine, essential to the human experience, is reborn for our fast-paced modern world.

William Mathis is a health educator and writer focusing on wellness and spirituality. Some of his writings can be found at

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