What happens during a hot stone massage?

A hot stone massage treatments help you relax and ease tense muscles and damaged soft tissues throughout your body. During a hot stone massage, smooth, flat, heated stones can be placed on specific parts of your body. The stones are usually made of basalt, a type of volcanic rock that retains heat, and they are heated to between 50 and 65 degrees.

The stones may be placed along your spine, stomach, chest, on palms and on your feet and toes.

Your therapists will then hold heated stones as they massage your body using Swedish massage techniques.

Sometimes, cold stones are also used during a hot stone massage. Cold stones may be used after hot stones to calm any engorged blood vessels and to soothe the skin.

Benefits of hot stone massage

All massages generally fall under the alternative medicine umbrella. They’re becoming a popular complementary therapy for many conditions. Here are some advantages of getting a hot stone massage:

Helps relieve muscle tension and pain: Heat has long been used to ease muscle tension and pain. It helps increase blood flow to the affected area. It may also reduce muscle spasms and increase flexibility and range of motion. Cold therapy helps relieve inflammation. Depending on your symptoms, alternating hot and cold stones during your massage may be helpful.

Reduces stress and anxiety: It’s the position of the American Massage Therapy Association that “massage therapy can be effective for stress relief.” Research supports their opinion. A 2001 study showed that a ten-minute massage improved cardiovascular responses such as stroke volume. A 1997 studyfound that 15-minute, onsite chair massages in the workplace significantly reduced stress compared to a 15-minute break without massage. A 2015 study found that people who underwent abdominal colorectal surgery had less pain, tension, and anxiety after receiving post-operative massage.

Promotes sleep: A 2006 literature review found massage may be an alternative to sleeping pills in adults with insomnia. The research showed that back massage helped promote relaxation and sleep. A 2001 study showed that infants with sleep problems who were given a 15-minute massage by their parents went to sleep faster. They were also more alert, active, and positive upon awakening. Massage is thought to help you enjoy more restorative sleep, although it’s not completely understood why.

May help relieve symptoms of autoimmune diseases: Hot stone massage may relieve painful conditions such as fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes widespread, chronic pain. According to a 2002 study, people with fibromyalgia who received a 30-minute massage slept longer, had fewer trigger points, and had decreased levels of substance P (a substance involved in transmitting pain signals) than people with the condition who received relaxation therapy. A 2013 study found that people with rheumatoid arthritis may benefit from a moderate-pressure massage, such as hot stone massage. Participants in the study experienced less pain, greater grip strength, and a greater range of motion after one month of massage therapy.

May help decrease cancer symptoms: A large, three-year study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management examined how massage affected pain, fatigue, stress and anxiety, nausea, and depression in 1,290 people with cancer. The study showed massage, especially Swedish massage, improved cancer symptoms, even in those with substantial symptoms. Researchers believe the comforting use of human touch played a role.

May boost immunity: Massage may give your immune system a boost. According to a 2010 study, a single session of Swedish massage therapy had a positive and acute impact on immunity. Blood samples taken before and after the massage showed a decrease in arginine-vasopressin, a hormone that helps regulate blood pressure and water retention.

Who may benefit from a hot stone massage?

Anyone who is experiencing muscle tension and pain, insomnia, or stress may benefit from a hot stone massage. If you have a chronic condition that causes pain, talk to your doctor to see if a hot stone massage is a good option for you.

The bottom line

Studies show that a hot stone massage may be a helpful way to reduce stress and anxiety, promote relaxation, and ease pain and muscle tension. It may be helpful for a variety of conditions and circumstances. More study is needed to find out exactly why massage therapy has such a powerful impact. It may have a lot to do with human touch. For many people, touch offers a sense of connection and security. To make sure you have a positive hot stone massage experience, only use a massage therapist trained to work with hot stones.

Sources of research

  • Boone, T., Tanner, M., & Radosevich, A. (2001). Effects of a 10-minute back rub on cardiovascular responses in healthy subjects. The American Journal of Chinese Medicine, 29(1)

  • Cady, S. H., & Jones, G. E. (1997). Massage therapy as a workplace intervention for the reduction of stress. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 84: 157-158

  • Cassileth, B. R., & Vickers, A. J. (2004, September). Massage therapy for symptom control: Outcome study at a major cancer center. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 28(3), 244-249

  • Dreyer, N. E., Cutshall, S. M., Huebner, M., Foss, D. M., Lovely, J. K., Bauer, B. A., & Cima, R. R. (2015, August). Effect of massage therapy on pain, anxiety, relaxation, and tension after colorectal surgery: A randomized study. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 21(3), 154-159

  • Flagg, R., & Brennan, M. K. (2006, October). Massage therapy can relieve stress

  • Field, T., Diego, M., Delgado, J., Garcia, D., & Funk, C. G. (2013, May). Rheumatoid arthritis in upper limbs benefits from moderate pressure massage therapy. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 19(2), 101-103

  • Field, T., & Hernandez-Reif, M. (2001, March 10). Sleep problems in infants decrease following massage therapy. Early Child Development and Care, 168(1), 95-104

  • Massage and pregnancy: Prenatal massage. (2015, July). Retrieved from

  • Massage therapy for health purposes. (2016, June)

  • Massage therapy with licensed massage therapists at UNH. (n.d.)

  • Mayo Clinic Staff. (2015, December 7). Massage: Get in touch with its many benefits

  • Ship, A. (2015). Back massage and related techniques in the elderly: A literature review. Care, 19, 163-173

  • Study examines effects of Swedish massage therapy on hormones, immune function. (2015, February 2)

  • When to use hot and cold therapy. (n.d.)

  • Field, T., Diego, M., Cullen, C., Hernandez-Reif, M., Sunshine, W., & Douglas, S. (2002, April). Fibromyalgia pain and substance p decrease and sleep improves after massage therapy [Abstract]. Journal of Clinical Rheumatology, 8(2), 72-76

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