How Can Massage Therapy Influence Immune System Health?

By Jennifer Hyland, RMT

As we move into cold and flu season, everyone is looking for a way to stay germ free. In some cultures, massage is a traditional way to prevent colds, or to manage symptoms when a cold first starts. While I don’t recommend a massage when you’re all-the-way sick, we have research showing that massage therapy can help reduce your risk of getting sick.

Massage therapy has been shown to increase the number of and activity levels of virus and bacteria fighting white blood cells. Natural killer (NK) cells are a type of white blood cells that look for tumour cells and viral-infected cells, targeting those cells with proteins that destroy the diseased cell and the virus inside of it. A study shows an increase in these NK cells when adolescents with HIV[1] receive massage therapy.  This supports the traditional belief that regular massage therapy can help prevent you from coming down with a viral infection (like a flu or cold) even if you’ve been exposed. In a study of healthy adults, after a relaxing massage, the patients had “increased activity of both T and B lymphocytes and levels of serum IgG[2].” T and B lymphocytes are the two main types of white blood cells that attack invaders, T cells by attacking the cell that is infected, and B cells by connecting to antigens on the surface of the virus or bacteria itself.  Massage therapy won’t cure an illness, but it can help to support your body’s natural immune defences as they handle an invading pathogen.

I find that my patients who book in for regular massages feel like they are in control of their health, and that massage helps to prevent them from feeling run-down and susceptible to illness.  There’s also a strong link between relaxation/stress reduction and improved immune function, Judy Lovas found that she could reproduce previous studies showing reductions in stress hormones, and linked those effects to the improved immune function in people receiving massage therapy[3].  She suggested that the increased action of the parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxing effect) during a massage could be another way that massage therapy supports your immune health.

As well as the specific effects we’ve studied in relation to the immune system, by supporting your sleep, reducing cortisol levels, and increasing circulation, massage therapy helps you stay in a state of wellness, reducing your susceptibility to cold and flu viruses as well as more serious illnesses. Massage therapy is generally safe for all ages and stages of life, from children to seniors, including prenatal massages for expectant parents  

To learn more about how Massage Therapy can keep you healthy, book and appointment with one of our Registered Massage Therapists: Deborah VanderKruk and Jennifer Hyland


[1] Miguel A. Diego, Tiffany Field, Maria Hernandez-Reif, Kimberly Shaw, Lawrence Friedman & Gail Ironson HIV Adolescents Show Improved Immune Function Following Massage Therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience Vol. 106 , Iss. 1-2,2001

[2] Lovas, Judy, Ashley R.Craig,  Yvette D.Segala Robert L.Raison Kathryn M.Weston & Margaret R.Markusc. The effects of massage therapy on the human immune response in healthy adults. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies Volume 6, Issue 3, July 2002, Pages 143-150

[3] Lovas, Judy. The effects of massage therapy on immune function. Journal of the Australian Traditional-Medicine Society (J AUST TRADITIONAL MED SOC), Summer2015; 21(4): 245-245. (1p)