Massage Goes Mainstream

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The rise of spa culture also plays a role in the mainstreaming of massage. Hotels, such as the hip L'Ermitage in Beverly Hills, Calif., that formerly touted their state-of-the-art gyms are ripping them out and replacing them with spas. Radissons are adding spas, as are many health clubs. Choosing from the variety of rubdowns offered at these oases can take the kind of focus and endurance normally expended on choosing a career. There is traditional Swedish massage in which muscles are stroked and kneaded, Shiatsu and other acupressure-based Eastern techniques, reflexology (in which the hands and feet are prodded) and aromatherapy, which uses scented oils to enhance the effects of massage. For those with real backbone, there is the menage a trois of back rubs, the four-handed massage.

The fanciest purveyors try to top one another with combinations of techniques, spiced with beauty treatments. Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa in Asheville, N.C., offers "Fire, Rock, Water and Light," in which the client's body is patted down with cool water, exfoliated with a blend of sugar and aromatic oil, painted with buttermilk and honey and then wrapped, whereafter cool rocks are stroked on the face. Once demummified, the client is given a "waterfall massage"--a spraying by multiple showerheads. In September the North Carolina Association of Realtors will send 1,000 participants to a conference at Grove Park. Even before the conferees check in they will be greeted by a phalanx of massage therapists offering chair massages at registration.

But for many, massage is not simply about paying someone to help them relax. It's about maintaining their health. Massage has long been part of the treatment for muscular and arthritic conditions, sports injuries and chronic pain. Prenatal and infant massage are also catching on and a rape-crisis center in North Carolina even offers massage or "safe touch" as part of its therapy. A national survey of employer-sponsored health plans by William M. Mercer found that 15% of HMOs offer massage. Cigna and Blue Cross Blue Shield cover massage in some packages too.

How much difference does massage make to your physical well-being? The National Institutes of Health is currently funding three studies trying to quantify the medical benefits. And in March the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy released a paper calling for more research into massage and more public education on massage. Its chairman, James Gordon, says that although he prescribes massage to about half his patients, some of its healing qualities may come simply from being touched by another human. "We shouldn't put too much weight on its benefits, but at the same time we should make it available to everyone," he says. "Massage does decrease anxiety, reliably. It does decrease pain in a number of people with chronic-pain syndrome. It does improve mood. Exactly how it does it, I don't think we know."

The medical and pharmaceutical industries have created substances that make people feel as good as massages do. But unlike massages, they require prescriptions, are addictive or induce hangovers. So there's the rub.

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