Massage Therapy For PTSD: Finding Relief Through Relaxation

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Experiencing a traumatic event can have many long-lasting effects, one of which may be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When living with PTSD, you might try numerous treatments to relieve symptoms and heal from the traumatic experience. In addition to common options like cognitive behavioral therapy and medication, some people living with PTSD have found relief through massage therapy. Although this type of therapy might not completely erase the effects of PTSD, it can be a helpful tool for managing symptoms. Massage therapy may provide better results when paired with research-backed treatment methods like face-to-face or online therapy. 

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Healing from a traumatic experience is possible

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is generally defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, series of events or set of circumstances.”

Although often associated with the military, such as Army, Marine, or National Guard veterans, PTSD can affect people of all backgrounds. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports that approximately 6% of the U.S. population may experience PTSD at some point in their lives. However, many people who undergo treatment find symptom relief over time.

Causes of PTSD

PTSD is typically caused by a traumatic event. The National Institute of Mental Health describes a traumatic event as “shocking, scary, or dangerous.”

While the event itself can vary, some common traumatic events might include the following

  • Near-death experiences, such as from a serious accident
  • Serious injury or bodily harm
  • Serious health problems or long-term hospitalization
  • Witnessing a death, accident, or other traumatic event
  • Being involved in war or conflict
  • Sexual trauma or assault
  • Abuse, including in childhood

Although many people might experience a traumatic event during their lives, it’s estimated that only one in three people who experience severe trauma may develop PTSD. While it’s not fully understood why only some people will develop this condition, some believe that genetic factors or a history of mental health conditions*, such as depression or anxiety, could make one more susceptible to developing PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD can come with several symptoms, but not everyone will experience every symptom associated with the condition. Below are some common PTSD symptoms:

  • Being easily startled or frightened
  • Hypervigilance or heightened awareness of surroundings
  • Irritability or angry outbursts
  • Unwanted recurring memories of the traumatic event or intrusive thoughts, sometimes caused by an external trigger
  • Reliving the traumatic event (sometimes referred to as a flashback)
  • Guilt or shame surrounding the traumatic event
  • Sleep disruptions, such as nightmares or insomnia
  • Avoidance, including avoiding places, people, or activities that could remind you of the traumatic event
  • Memory loss related to the traumatic event or struggling to recall important details of the event
  • Feeling sad, hopeless, or numb
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Chronic pain
  • Detachment from friends or family
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Substance misuse, including alcohol

Please note that a certain combination of experience and symptoms has been established by the American Psychiatric Association to receive an official diagnosis for PTSD. While some may not meet the diagnostic criteria for the condition, symptoms can still be valid, and some treatment types might still serve as helpful ways to find relief.

What is massage therapy?

Massage therapy usually falls under the category of integrative therapies, which are often described as holistic approaches to finding relief. The practice might also be considered a body-oriented therapy, as it utilizes the physical body. 

A woman sits at a table next to her female doctor as she looks at the information the doctor was showing her.
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In general, massage therapy involves rubbing and manipulating the muscles and soft tissues of a person’s body. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, massage may be one of the earliest methods of relieving physical pain recorded in human history.

In a typical massage therapy session, a massage therapist might apply pressure and movement to areas of a client’s body, identifying painful areas or body parts holding tension. Often, massage therapists create a calming environment for their massage therapy sessions, using music, sounds, scents, or other techniques to promote relaxation. 

Massage therapy tends to be most frequently used to relieve general stress and tension held in a person’s body. However, massage therapy has also been used to relieve stress and pain associated with various other conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, and fibromyalgia. Massage might also be used to aid the healing process for injuries, particularly those related to sports.

How massage therapy can help with PTSD

Massage therapy might not cause all PTSD symptoms to disappear, and it should also be noted that research on massage therapy for PTSD is limited. However, research indicates that the practice is not usually associated with harmful incidents for individuals living with PTSD. The practice is commonly used to treat several symptoms that are often associated with this condition, and many find some level of relief in massage sessions.

Those living with PTSD might find that massage therapy can help them manage or relieve the following symptoms:

Chronic pain

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that “approximately 15% to 35% of patients with chronic pain also have PTSD.” Additionally, they note that “only 2% of people who do not have chronic pain have PTSD symptoms.” Chronic pain might be a result of the traumatic event itself, such as an accident, and it could serve as a reminder of the experience, amplifying symptoms in some. Chronic pain could also be the result of consistent tension or stress in the body.

Massage therapy tends to be a common form of treatment for chronic pain management. A recent study analyzed randomized controlled trials of massage therapy as a treatment for pain and found it to be effective.

Stress

Those living with PTSD might experience stress alongside other symptoms, such as flashbacks, unwanted memories, or hypervigilance.

One study analyzed the effect of massage therapy on Intensive Care Unit nurses and found a significant decrease in stress levels after treatment. 

Another study looked for physical evidence of reduced stress levels after a massage therapy session, noting that patients typically experienced decreased heart rates and reduced diastolic blood pressures, although updated research may be needed.

Depression

Depression can be a common side effect of PTSD, with many reporting sadness, hopelessness, low mood, or numbness after a traumatic event. This can be especially common if the traumatic event involved losing a loved one. Additionally, many symptoms of depression tend to overlap with symptoms of PTSD, including insomnia and trouble concentrating.

While additional evidence may be necessary, a meta-analysis of the treatment effects of massage therapy in people living with depression found the practice to be “significantly associated with alleviated depressive symptoms.

Anxiety

Although it may no longer be categorized as an anxiety disorder, PTSD is often associated with anxiety and can co-occur with other conditions, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Those living with PTSD might feel anxious while thinking about a traumatic event or experiencing a flashback. Additionally, hypervigilance can make it difficult for them to relax.

Research suggests that massage therapy could be an effective treatment for anxiety. A 2010 study analyzed the effectiveness of therapeutic massage for GAD, reporting that patients typically experienced a reduction in symptoms of GAD, depressive symptoms, and worry. 

Sleep

Sleep conditions and disorders tend to be common in people living with PTSD, often involving insomnia, nightmares, or avoiding going to sleep to prevent thinking about the traumatic event.

Although there is some research that suggests massage therapy can improve sleep, its effects on sleep quality for those living with PTSD are limited. 

A 2019 study found inconsistent demonstrable improvement in its three participants. However, patients reported some additional benefits that were not measured by the study. Additionally, no harmful incidents were recorded as a result of the treatment.

A man in a tan button down shirt sits on a couch across from his male therapist as he talks during a therapy session.
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Healing from a traumatic experience is possible

Other treatment options for PTSD

While massage therapy can be a helpful tool in promoting relaxation, relieving physical pain, and managing some of the symptoms associated with the condition, other treatment options may be beneficial as well.

  • Medication: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or antidepressants may be helpful in managing PTSD. Always consult with a doctor before beginning, changing, or discontinuing medication.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT generally focuses on identifying and changing unhelpful thoughts and behaviors in order to improve mental health. This type of therapy is often strongly recommended by the APA for the treatment of PTSD.
  • Other forms of therapy: Cognitive processing therapy (CPT), exposure therapy, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), among others, can serve as effective treatments for PTSD as well.

Benefits of online therapy

For those living with PTSD, it can be challenging to attend in-person sessions with a therapist. The outside world may trigger memories of your traumatic experience, potentially making it difficult to leave the house. Additionally, symptoms of depression or anxiety might create additional barriers to finding treatment. Online therapy can be a helpful alternative to face-to-face sessions, as you can meet with a licensed therapist from the comfort of your own home.

Effectiveness of online therapy

Research suggests that online therapy can be an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. A recent study concluded that 80% of the patients receiving internet-delivered cognitive therapy for PTSD achieved “clinically significant change and remission from PTSD.” Additionally, according to the same study, internet-based treatment typically required substantially less time in therapy in order to see improvements.

Takeaway

Post-traumatic stress disorder can develop in people who have lived through a traumatic event, including those that are shocking, frightening, or dangerous. Symptoms can vary but might include unwanted memories, flashbacks, sleep disruptions, sadness, or hypervigilance. Although it isn’t necessarily a cure, massage therapy could be a helpful treatment option in managing symptoms of PTSD, as research suggests it can help relieve chronic pain, anxiety, and stress. Another beneficial treatment option may be cognitive behavioral therapy, which can be completed in person or online.

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