What Really Happens During a Massage?

by Deion Clifton

Welcome to your complete guide to recovery, a series where we teach you all about the different recovery methods and the related recovery items offered here at HAC. Our goal is to assist you in finding which methods work best for YOU. We hope to provide you with all the necessary materials to help build the best possible version of yourself. This time around, we’ll be deeply diving into massages and the benefits they provide for our muscles (and more). Now, let’s jump into everybody’s spa day favorite!

Massages are an efficient passive recovery tool that can bring comfort, relaxation, and stability. The atmosphere alone is an important part of any massage session. Along with the candlelit room, serene sounds, and comfortable massage tables, professionals use their knowledge of the body’s muscular system to delicately provide the care and recovery you need. But what is it about the hands of our massage professionals that leaves clients feeling so relaxed and rejuvenated? To answer this question, I sat down with HAC Massage Director and massage professional Craig Bohn.

A Touch of Relaxation

A chemical reaction takes place when receiving a massage. The hands of a professional trigger this reaction within the first 15 minutes of a massage. The body will release feel-good chemicals that produce benefits beyond muscle recovery. The release of mood boosters such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins provides mental stimulation and allows for relaxation.


Cortisol is a hormone that relates to stress and anxiety. “Cortisol levels begin to lower after the first 15 minutes of soft tissue manipulation,” Craig says. “High levels of cortisol are one of the major causes of illness in the U.S.” The cortisol hormone affects almost every organ and tissue in your body. It regulates stress response, assists in controlling metabolism and macronutrient use, subdues inflammation, regulates blood pressure and blood sugar, and helps maintain your sleep cycle.

The body monitors cortisol levels to help you achieve homeostasis. Cortisol naturally rises and falls through the day, usually reaching peak levels in the morning and bottoming out by evening. However, cortisol levels also increase during stressful times, especially after an adrenaline rush. High cortisol levels could contribute to weight gain, muscle weakness, high blood pressure, hypertension, and osteoporosis.1


Serotonin is another hormone that affects the neurotransmitters in the body. It carries messages between the central and peripheral nervous systems. Low serotonin levels are associated with mental health and mood disorders (including but not limited to depression and anxiety), sleep problems, and digestive issues. Serotonin levels also rise during the beginning stages of a massage.

Craig calls serotonin the “happy chemical” because it reduces feelings of depression. However, our brain only produces about 10% of the serotonin in our bodies; the other 90% lives in our gut.2 The chemical affects many aspects of our bodies, including mood, digestion, nausea, sleep, wound healing, bone health, learning and memory, body temperature, sleep, and hunger.


When receiving therapeutic massages, such as a Swedish massage, dopamine is released. According to Craig, this neurotransmitter improves brain wave activity, helps with sleep, and affects the parasympathetic response in the nervous system.

Similar to serotonin, dopamine is considered a feel-good chemical because of its role in mood regulation. The right balance can produce happiness, motivation, alertness, and focus. Dopamine rewards you when you’re doing things that feel good.3 According to the Cleveland Clinic, “our brains are hard-wired to seek out behaviors that release dopamine in our reward system.” Some of these things could be good for us, and some could be harmful. When consuming junk food, dopamine is released, causing the mind and body to crave more.

Some health conditions are associated with having high or low dopamine levels. Low dopamine levels are associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Parkinson’s disease, and restless legs syndrome. Meanwhile, diseases such as mania, obesity, and addiction are associated with high dopamine levels.3


Craig says, “endorphins are your body’s natural painkiller.” They help accelerate focus and positivity, relieve pain, reduce stress, and improve overall mood. Endorphins are released while receiving a massage. This chemical is usually released when the body senses pain or stress, but can also result from other forms of stimulation. It’s one of the reasons runners catch a runner’s high or why athletes may report feelings of euphoria after working out. Essentially, due to an endorphin dump, you can experience a natural high during a massage.

You feel so relaxed that you slumber during your massage because of hormones. The chemicals released upon the touch of a HAC massage professional create a comforting environment that leaves you on a natural high.

The HAC Massage Experience

The Massage Center offers many massage experiences which present their own benefits. Some massages offered are Swedish/therapeutic, hot stone, reflexology, and sports/deep tissue. According to Craig, massage helps athletes increase mobility, and recovery speeds, reduce inflammation, and increase energy and power production. Recovery benefits, combined with the relaxation benefits described earlier, make for one of the most potent passive recovery methods a person can receive.


The benefits of this type of massage are “all geared around overall well-being of the human body,” says Craig. Though a typical Swedish massage uses a more gentle, relaxing touch, HAC massage professionals are encouraged to work deeper. This pressure change makes the HAC massage experience different; traditional Swedish massages incorporate “really light effleurage,” while our professionals add more pressure to their strokes.

As a therapeutic massage, this technique allows the body and muscles to relax by triggering neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, endorphins, and the parasympathetic response. Blood and lymph are moved during this technique as well as other modalities, and the fascia is stretched to a degree.

Hot Stone

Craig classifies this as another type of therapeutic massage. The stones hold all the power in this technique. The heat of the stone penetrating the muscle helps to relax and soothe it.

Where other massage centers may leave the rocks in a specific area, HAC uses the stones to help stretch the muscles, using them as tools for a more enhanced Swedish massage.


This technique is a treatment generally performed on the hands and feet. Your feet and hands play the most prominent role in your daily function, so caring for them occasionally can take you a long way. Feet experience stress every day from carrying the weight of the body, causing fascia in our extremities to tighten and trigger points to form. Untreated trigger points can result in myofascial pain syndrome – a chronic pain disorder resulting from placing pressure on trigger points.6 Here at HAC, we provide 30-minute sessions devoted to helping you revitalize the parts of your body that experience the most activity, allowing for a release of any possible pain or blockage.

Deep Tissue

As important as it is to work on the superficial layer of muscle, for some it’s more beneficial to work on the deeper underlying muscles. For example, located in the calf is the gastrocnemius – a core leg muscle with two heads attached to it. But underneath that lies a stabilizing muscle, the soleus. This massage focuses on the deeper muscles through the application of sustained pressure, hence the name “deep tissue.”

Most athletes prefer deep-tissue massages because this massage targets trigger points (aka “knots”) located in deeper underlying muscles.

Because the massage professional is getting deeper into the tissue, you may feel sore after a deep tissue/sports massage. Don’t worry; this is totally normal! Craig says, “In all actuality, you’re really addressing the tissue and inflammation in that area.” He continues, “Massage is a total passive workout because you’re not functionally working out – I’m basically working your muscle tissue: Moving and manipulating muscle fibers and fascia achieves the same result as a workout. All those things are happening just like in a strenuous workout, but on a passive level because I’m initiating that response.”

Some people may experience soreness after a deep tissue/sports massage. This should dissipate in one to two days. When the soreness goes away, you’ll feel great because, at this point, all of the benefits of the massage have taken effect.

Communication is Key

Like anything else, you want to ensure those working on you are best prepared before administering a massage. Be honest with the massage professional about allergens, medications, and prior injuries or surgeries. Professionals want you to feel good during your massage. That’s why HAC (and most other massage centers) have an intake form. Your honesty and communication will help ensure you receive the best possible experience.

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