Many people perceive receiving a massage as a luxurious indulgence, a treat comparable to buying a new fancy outfit or eating lobster and caviar for dinner. While there is no doubt that a good massage can make you feel like a million bucks, its physiological rewards extend far beyond feeling pampered. Nowhere is massage’s impact on the body more profound than in those who have the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). For individuals who are HIV positive, the cellular battle within the immune system can get a significant wellness boost from regular massage therapy.
HIV is the retrovirus that causes AIDS – acquired immunodeficiency virus. In the early stages of HIV infection, there are rarely any symptoms. As it progresses, the immune system becomes increasingly impaired. Usually taking one to two decades, advanced HIV can manifest as AIDS – a severe crippling of the immune system that makes sufferers vulnerable to a long list of opportunistic infections and chronic illnesses.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for HIV. Instead, the current medical treatment aims to inhibit replication of the virus and thus prevent it from causing full-blown AIDS. Antiretroviral medications (ART) are used to inhibit the spread of HIV at various sites of activity. The ART medications are used alone or in a combination known as a “cocktail,” a highly active retroviral therapy (HAART).
Key HIV-Related Immune Cells
A type of white blood cell known as a lymphocyte, T cells (or T lymphocytes) play a key role in the immune system. There are two primary types of T-cells:
- CD4 cells – Helping to initiate the body’s response to infections, these cells have a protein titled CD4 on their surface.
- CD8 cells – CD8 cells produce antibodies to destroy virally infected cells and tumor cells. These immune cells have a protein on their surface titled CD8.
HIV primarily targets the immune cell CD4+ T-lymphocyte. This is because HIV has a specific affinity for the CD4+ T cell surface marker. CD4 cells serve as the host cells that aid HIV in replication. HIV attaches to the CD4 cells, allowing the virus to enter and infect the CD4 cells, damaging them in the process. The fewer functioning CD4 cells, the weaker the immune system and therefore the more vulnerable a person is to infections and illnesses.
A ratio of about one to two CD4+ cells to every CD8+ cell is considered normal in a healthy individual. However, HIV infection causes a decrease in immune cell production and a notable decrease in the CD4-to-CD8 ratio – a decline that indicates a problematic depletion of much needed T-lymphocytes.
A study recently published in an August 2011 edition of the journal Nature, found that another type of immune cell, the natural killer (NK) cell, contributes to the immune response against HIV. NK cells bind to virus-infected cells or tumor cells and release cell-killing proteins that destroy their targets. For the first time, this study suggests that NK cells can impose immune pressure on HIV.
Massage’s Cellular Assault on HIV
Although receiving a massage has many potential physiological benefits to someone with a weakened immune system, there is evidence that it also helps those with HIV on a cellular level.
- As published in a 2001 edition of the International Journal of Neuroscience, Florida researchers found that adolescents with the HIV virus had improvements in their immune function following massage therapy. More specifically, massage recipients had greater natural killer cell numbers, improved CD4 to CD8 ratios and improvements in their CD4 counts than controls.
- As published in a 2006 edition of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, researchers evaluated the effectiveness of massage therapy on the immune systems of young Dominican HIV+ children without access to antiretroviral therapies. The investigators found a benefit to the immune systems of massage recipients, as both CD4 and CD8 cell counts remained stable or improved while natural killer cells increased in this group. Those in the control group (without massage) experienced the opposite cellular response.
Exerting a more beneficial impact on human physiology than most people are aware, massage therapy does much more than just pamper the receiver. Although not considered to be a first line of defense against HIV, there is enough scientific evidence to assume massage helps strengthen the immune system to better defend against viruses like HIV. As demonstrated by the effect it has on CD4+ and CD8+ T cells and NK cells, massage therapy is a valuable component to an HIV management program.