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Massage Therapy: The Unlikely Profession

I've been fascinated watching videos of primates grooming each other lately. I even watched a macaque monkey give a human woman a scalp massage, ostensibly searching for bugs. And while I’ve also been known to give a good scalp massage, it’s unlikely you’ll find me looking for bugs on the skin of my clients. Let’s hope. This recent obsession with primate grooming came after I was working out the kinks in my client's lower leg and I observed the tranquil expression on her face as she lay, eyes closed, on the massage table. So there I am, rubbing the feet of a woman who I just met at my home office while she lay motionless, vulnerable, possibly asleep, on a table. And I wonder to myself, “What is this? What am I doing? Yes I know she came to see me for chronic headaches and tension, but why me? Why like this?” I further reflected on what a unique service I am providing. People come to see me monthly, sometimes weekly, for me to do this. It’s a bit strange when you really think about it. Then I remembered a phrase uttered by Canadian physiotherapist and author, Diane Jacobs: human primate social groomer.

Grooming is a vital part of the life of many animals. It’s been observed that grooming establishes strong relational bonds, builds companionship, provides a means of reconciliation, and most notably - reduces stress. During grooming, a chimpanzee will remove dirt, bugs, and other debris from another chimp’s hair. This may take a few minutes or even a few hours. But it’s not just about getting clean. In fact, this behavior is known as social grooming. It’s also part of how certain animals, especially primates, designate where everyone exists on the social strata as well as maintain strong bonds among friends and family members. As I move and manipulate my clients’ arms and apply pressure to various parts of their body, it reminds me of how I’ve watched a primate dance around another reposing member of their troop and arrange his limbs to gain access to specific parts of their body to touch and groom.

Particularly of note is how social grooming provides a psychological benefit.  In one study, researchers observed that chimpanzees who were groomed by their peers exhibited reduced stress levels and improved mood. This suggests that grooming may be a way for the animals to release tension and promote relaxation. Herein lies the connection with massage therapy and its widely-touted perk of stress-reduction. As I’ve said at other times in my writing, skin is jam-packed with receptors that directly interact and modulate the central nervous system. I believe there’s no better way to affect a person’s nervous system than through physical contact, which would include social grooming among many species of animals.  

That brings me back to the term “human primate social groomer.” I think I’m in agreement with that term - though I’m not about to stamp it on my business card. But if you think about it, there’s not much dissimilar between somebody, (a human primate), coming into my office and lying on the table for an hour while I bathe their nervous system with a flood of happy hormones and chemicals through physical contact, and a chimp lying motionless while their friend or family member strokes and combs through their hair, providing them with similar benefits. These behaviors reduce pain and increase a sense of connection and well-being. And I think it’s something very innate to the animal experience; which is why humans have come up with their own arrangement through massage therapy. 

Another concept I’d like to mention here is the polyvagal theory introduced by psychologist and neuroscientist Stephen Porges. One of his claims is that our nervous systems are exquisitely designed toward relationships. He also claims that our nervous systems regulate themselves through interactions with others and their nervous systems. This is known as co-regulation. Our moods, stress, mental states, emotions all become regulated when we are held in another’s non-judgemental, caring attention. By engaging in sustained meaningful and nurturing contact with my clients, I am conveying to their nervous system that they are being seen and considered. This provides a soothing signal to the nervous system of the receiver via the vagus nerve which relays the message of, “I’m ok. I’m safe” And as we know from pain science, when the nervous system feels safe, pain signals diminish. 

Another reason for the existence of massage therapy is that it fulfills a need which is sadly not being met elsewhere in our communities. It’s no secret that society has become more segmented, divided, and isolated in recent years. In fact, in some countries, like Japan, a crisis of loneliness has been declared where over 40% of people report feeling chronically lonely. It’s so bad that an entire industry exists where you can ‘rent a family or friend.’ In a country where much of its population is structured around dense urban environments, it’s ironic that people can feel so secluded. It’s not much different in a country like the United States; just a matter of degree. 

And so in the absence of a very robust social system that naturally promotes interconnectedness and healthy relationships among members of society, something like the profession of massage therapy has emerged. The structure of our civilization and the ways we interact and organize around each other are very different today, but our human, biological needs are still the same. We still seek and crave connection, nurturance, aid, and assistance from our fellow humans. Sometimes I wonder if massage therapy is the commoditization of strong relational bonds. Either way, I am very thankful it exists and I look forward to the day when we as a society can address the issues of isolation and loneliness directly and nurture more loving and interdependent relationships among friends, family, and neighbors. It may shrink my practice a bit, but I’d be ok with that.


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