Pleasure Receptors Respond to Massage!

Micro-Blog Post on Pleasure Receptors

The RMT Education Project attempts to simplify the complex - breaking down information dense research into manageable chunks. If you are looking for a somewhere to start, check out the ‘Curated Content’ page or browse through ‘The Research Countdown Series’.

The Research Countdown
 10 Articles All Massage Therapists Should Read
• 9 Open Access Articles All Massage Therapists Should Read
• 8 Researchers Who Are Changing Massage Therapy

Open Access Tools & Resources
• Curated Resources for Massage Therapists
• Open Access Research Papers
• Resources for Patients

Research Review
• A New Muscle: The Tensor Vastus Intermedius
• Pleasure Receptors Response to Massage
• Does Fascia Release
• Evidence Informed Massage

Pleasure Receptors Respond to Massage!


Some of the earliest accounts of massage date back 4000 years ago to the ancient Egyptians. Given this long history, it is surprising that scientific research has yet to delineate the way massage helps people manage pain.

Pain is a complex biopsychosocial experience that is processed and relayed at various levels in the nervous system, and so there are multiple levels at which pain may be alleviated by massage therapy. One hypothesis is that  massage helps to manage pain by stimulating pleasure receptors. Pleasure receptors are a recent scientific discovery, popularized by a 2013 article published in the January edition of Nature. This article suggested that there are specialized sensory receptors for pleasant sensations (tactile C fibers). Just as noxious stimulation is detected by nociceptors; Pleasant stimulation is detected by specialized unmyelinated tactile C fibers. Stimulating pleasure receptors with gentle massage is one way we can provide the body with "yes-ciception", this provides a the nervous system with a safety message - for more on safety messages see the works of Moseley and Butler.

We will experience pain when our credible evidence of danger related to our body is greater than our credible evidence of safety related to our body. Equally we won’t have pain when our credible evidence of safety is greater than our credible evidence of danger
— Moseley & Butler 2015

Massage therapy is an experience that feels good, this is why it works so well. It works by stimulating these pleasure receptors to provide the nervous system with a message of safety. Even though most of this research is still in the developmental phase, it is my belief that in the coming years it will provide massage therapists with useful insights as to why massage works.

Take Home Points

Tactile C fibers function as specialized sensory receptors for pleasant sensations
  • Even though there is still no clear explanation to why massage works; The body of knowledge to support the use of massage therapy continues to grow.
  • Massage has the potential to stimulate pleasure receptors (sensory neurons that are selectively activated by pleasant touch), this "yes-ciceptive" input provides the body with a safety message, this is one of the main reasons massage therapy helps people manage pain.

Links For The Curious

Abraira, V., & Ginty, D. (2013). The Sensory Neurons of Touch. Neuron,618-639

Ellingsen, D., Leknes, S., Løseth, G., Wessberg, J., & Olausson, H. (2016). The Neurobiology Shaping Affective Touch: Expectation, Motivation, and Meaning in the Multisensory Context. Frontiers in Psychology Front. Psychol.

Foster, E., Wildner, H., Tudeau, L., Haueter, S., Ralvenius, W., Jegen, M., . . . Zeilhofer, H. (2015). Targeted Ablation, Silencing, and Activation Establish Glycinergic Dorsal Horn Neurons as Key Components of a Spinal Gate for Pain and Itch. Neuron, 85(6), 1289-1304.

Liljencrantz, J., & Olausson, H. (2014). Tactile C fibers and their contributions to pleasant sensations and to tactile allodynia. Front. Behav. Neurosci. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 8.

Lloyd, D. M., Mcglone, F. P., & Yosipovitch, G. (2015). Somatosensory pleasure circuit: From skin to brain and back. Experimental Dermatology Exp Dermatol,24(5), 321-324.

Perini, I., Morrison, I., & Olausson, H. (2015). Seeking pleasant touch: Neural correlates of behavioral preferences for skin stroking. Front. Behav. Neurosci. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

Vrontou, S., Wong, A., Rau, K., Koerber, H., & Anderson, D. (2013). Genetic identification of C fibres that detect massage-like stroking of hairy skin in vivo. Nature, 669-673.