Does Massage Therapy Help Depression?

Depression is the most common mental illness; it is also the most treatable. Major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and dysthymia are 3 major types of depression and while symptoms of each may be similar, treatment may vary for each type.
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Mental Health in Canada

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness such as depression.(1) They also state mental health and physical health are fundamentally linked. People living with a serious mental illness are at higher risk of experiencing a wide range of chronic physical conditions. Contrarily, people living with chronic physical health conditions experience depression and anxiety at twice the rate of the general population.(2) In 2011, a study estimated that the cost of mental illness on the Canadian economy to be $42.3 billion in direct costs and $6.3 billion in indirect costs. It was noted this is likely an underestimate because these costs do not include costs to the justice system, social service and education systems, costs for child and youth services, informal caregiving costs, or costs attributable to losses in health-related quality of life.(3)

Depression is the most common mental illness; it is also the most treatable. Major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and dysthymia are 3 major types of depression and while symptoms of each may be similar, treatment may vary for each type. Some of the most common symptoms of major depressive disorder may include: constant sadness, irritability, unable to experience pleasure, change in eating habits, and thoughts about dying. Cycles of “highs and lows” are usually related to bipolar disorder while dysthymia is a continuous long-term form of depression.(4) Depression can also manifest itself in physical aches and pains that seem to have no explanation.(5)

The Effects of Massage Therapy on Depression

So, does Massage Therapy help depression? Current findings suggest that massage therapy, in conjunction with medical treatment, may be effective in helping to reduce symptoms of depression. One of the goals of a massage therapy treatment for depression is to decrease the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) firing and increase the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). An increase to the SNS is most commonly known as the “fight or flight” response and can cause mental alertness, increased heart rate, dilation of pupils, and a slower transit of food through the digestive tract. The PNS is responsible for the “rest and digest” functions such as conserving the body’s energy by slowing the heart rate, slowing breathing, promoting digestion of food, and constricting the pupils. While an SNS stress response by the body is useful during emergency situations, it is not useful with normal, everyday challenges. When the body starts reacting like this regularly, sickness can occur because the body has not had time to refuel or recharge. By increasing the PNS, the SNS will become less active.(6)

 Massage therapy has also been shown to increase oxytocin levels that regulate emotions that are linked to “warm and fuzzy” feelings and can significantly decrease vasopressin levels which influence behavior and emotional states such as aggression, fear, and anxiety.(7)

What type of Treatment should I book?

For someone experiencing more physical signs of depression such as those unexplained aches and pains, massage can help to reduce pain through techniques that, in the long term, will decrease tension in the muscles. While specific work such as treating trigger points (knots) or fascial techniques can be incorporated into a relaxation massage, soothing, stress-reducing techniques will be the primary focus. A full-body relaxation treatment is generally booked for 60 minutes, performing Swedish massage techniques addressing each area of the body in a slow, rhythmical manner. Trigger points are commonly found in shoulder and neck muscles such as: upper trapezius, levator scapula, supraspinatus, splenius capitis and cervicis and, suboccipital muscles. These same muscles are also frequently hypertonic. Passive stretching to shortened muscles, again commonly found in the neck, can be performed. Applications of hot hydrotherapy can help to decrease hypertonicity in muscles. Regular massage appointments are recommended with appointments being booked every two or three weeks or as often as the client can come. Educating and providing self-care recommendations as well, the clients’ ability to consistently follow these recommendations, will benefit the clients’ progress. On-going encouragement by the massage therapist can prove to be useful. Some self-care techniques may include: (8)

  • Awareness of posture and clenching, stiffness, etc.
  • Epsom salt baths
  • Self-massage
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Stretching
  • Positive self-talk
  • Finding a supportive network of people to talk to

In Summary

While more research is still needed to show the efficacy of massage therapy for the treatment of depression, many studies have shown short-term improvements in mood, and a decrease in muscle tension that may contribute to pain. Massage therapy is a low-risk complementary treatment option widely available.

Thank you for reading, please leave us any questions or comments you may have regarding how Massage Therapy can help depression.

Kim McLellan


  1. Fast Facts About Mental Illness. Canadian Mental Health Association website. Updated 2013. Accessed January 21, 2021
  • The Relationship Between Mental Health, Mental Illness and Chronic Physical Conditions. Canadian Mental Health Association website. Accessed January 21, 2021.

  • Smetanin, P., Stiff, D., Briante, C., Adair, C.E., Ahmad, S. and Khan, M. The Life and Economic Impact of Major Mental Illnesses in Canada: 2011 to 2041. RiskAnalytica, on behalf of the Mental Health Commission of Canada 2011.

  • Ontario Ministry of Health. Mental Health: Depression. Accessed January 21, 2021.

  • Kirchheimer S. Body Aches May Signal Depression. WebMD website. July 20, 2004. Accessed January 21, 2021.

  • Rattray F., Ludwig L. Clinical Massage Therapy: Understanding, Assessing and Treating Over 70 Conditions. 11th ed. Talus Incorporated; 2005
  • Rapaport MH, Schettler PJ, Larson ER, et al. Massage Therapy for Psychiatric Disorders. Focus (Am Psychiatr Publ). 2018;16(1):24-31. doi:10.1176/appi.focus.20170043

  • Rattray F., Ludwig L. Clinical Massage Therapy: Understanding, Assessing and Treating Over 70 Conditions. 11th ed. Talus Incorporated; 2005

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Kim McLellan

Kim McLellan

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