If your feet are aching after a long day, a foot massage can give you much-needed relief. But it doesn’t just feel good. Research shows that it has health benefits, too.
Even a brief foot massage can ease stress and perk you up. That’s a good thing, because cutting stress and bosting energy raise the odds you’ll make healthy choices like exercising and eating right.
But how does massage do all that? It activates your nervous system, which increases feel-good brain chemicals like endorphins. In one study, people who got foot massage after surgery to remove their appendix had less pain and used fewer painkillers.
That’s not all, though. Foot massage boosts your circulation, which helps with healing and keeps your muscles and tissues healthy. That’s especially important if you have health problems that add to poor circulation or nerve damage, like diabetes.
Rubbing your feet also gives you a chance to check for other problems, like sores, corns, and ingrown toenails. If you have poor circulation, checking your feet for sores is a good idea.
Foot Massage Activates Parts of the Brain Associated with Reward and Pain Control
One particular study looked at the effect that foot massage had on healthy adults by putting patients under an MRI scanner before the researches performed twenty seconds of massage (10). This study found activation of reward centres in the brain. Interestingly, though both hand and foot massage was used, the reward centres were only activated significantly when foot massage was performed (10). Activation of the reward centres was tied to the participants’ increased feelings of calm and a decrease in reported stress.
Another study noted activation of parts of the cingulate cortex when three different types of massage (Swedish, reflexology based massage and massage with an object) were applied to the foot (11).
The Cingulate cortex is responsible for many things, including pain moderation and the association between external events and memory and emotion (12). Thus, activation in this area of the brain suggests that foot massage may be useful when it comes to modifying the body’s response to pain, and how it responds to certain stimuli.
Take Away: Foot massage affects the brain, targeting both the brain’s reward centres, as well as parts of the brain responsible for pain moderation.
3) Foot Massage Affects Cortisol Levels (Sometimes) and Stress (Always)
Given the above, it should come as no surprise that massage of all types also influences cortisol levels (13).
Cortisol is the stress hormone. It causes all sorts of havoc in our bodies – increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety. Foot massage significantly decreases reported stress levels across many different groups (14).
It goes without saying that a decrease in stress is a good thing – it enables people to go about their days without worry, leaving them with more room to think and concentrate on other things.
This decrease in stress was not a discrete effect – foot massage was found to prompt a decrease in stress in healthy undergraduate students, women with postpartum depression and middle aged women living in the countryside. This was even when the studies found no significant decrease in cortisol (15, 16, 17).
The fact that stress decreased in all groups (undergraduate student, women suffering post-partumn depression and middle aged women) signifies that while there may be other factors at play, foot massage is still an effective way to decrease stress levels.
4 ) Foot Massage Affects us Because we are Being Taken Care Of:
A study into the effects of foot massage and reflexology looked at whether advanced cancer participants reported changes in mood when foot massage and foot reflexology was incorporated into their treatment and care (18). Most participants reported significant increases in wellbeing (18). The same was found in patients who participated in a study on the effects of foot massage in a critical care ward (19).
Human beings are social creatures, and we do not operate primarily on the basis of hormones and medications. When someone dedicates time to your comfort, it feels good. This feeling in turn prompts a release of hormones in your brain which creates a positive feedback loop. We feel good because we are being cared for. Thus, we get a release of hormones which make us feel good, and then we associate massage with something that is good for us.
As we saw above, foot massage affects the pleasure centres of our brains (10), our endorphin levels and decreases stress. While some studies showed statistically significant changes in biology due to massage, there is no way to remove the social aspect of foot massage from the studies. Thus, it is highly likely that while foot massage has its own discrete effects, it is even more likely that the social aspect of foot massage is a large part of that.
Take Away: Being taken care of is a social need, and a significant aspect of receiving a foot massage. Given that many studies reported decreases in stress, pain and anxiety, but could not find statistically significant changes in biological markers to explain this, it is likely that the social aspect of foot massage plays a large part.
5) Foot Massage Decreases our Perception of Pain
Pain has many different causes. Ranging from the psychological, to neural, to purely physical, it often combines many of these elements, making it a difficult condition to treat (20). It is a highly subjective experience, and one person’s agonising pain will be something that another person lives with day to day (21) . So how does foot massage help with pain?
If we look back at the ways that foot massage effects people, we see both physical effects and psychological effects. It provides social care, an increase in endorphins, and decreased stress levels. So it makes sense that when these things are effected, pain becomes easier to deal with. A study looking at how the perception of pain was affected by foot massage showed marked decreases in postoperative pain – so much so that the use of opioids in patients who received massage decreased when compared to the control groups (22).
This effect is most likely due to the ability of massage to treat several aspects of pain. We’ve already talked in this article about how massage affects parts of the brain involved in pain modulation (12), and how it also increases endorphin levels (9), and decreases stress levels (13).
Massage also provides a social element. Someone is taking care of you. It also has the potential to address the source of the pain. Deep tissue massage and massage focuses on the joints, looking to immediately effect the cause of the pain.