Like many other massage treatments traditionally offered in a spa, hot stone massage is often viewed as a "fluff" treatment. Something for which you are paying more money without any additional benefit just for the "spa experience." This is decidedly untrue, as hot stone massage has many therapeutic benefits and is not limited to being used only in a spa setting, despite the fact that it is most commonly found there. Some of the benefits include increasing blood flow to the areas being massaged, warming and releasing adhesions in the connective tissue, loosening tight portions of the muscles, and encouraging a profound relaxation experience.
Areas that are warm naturally have more blood flow to them. This is, of course, why portions of the body that are warm will appear ruddy whereas portions that are cold will appear pale. Hot stone massage facilitates the increased flow of blood to areas of the body that may not normally receive much circulation because the heat in the stones causes a physical reaction within the body. Blood vessels dilate and blood is allowed to flow more easily through the section of tissue that is being warmed by the stone. It is for this reason that many massage therapists find hot stones greatly assist them in loosening adhesions in the muscles and connective tissue. Heat enables things to receive blood which are normally stuck in an ischemic state. It is also for this reason that many people find pain relief from hot packs placed on areas where their muscles are tight and sore. Hot stone massage combines the benefits of heat with the manual manipulation of the therapist's hands for additional stretching.
In his groundbreaking videos showing the fascia (a type of connective tissue that runs throughout the body and helps provide it with structure), Dr. Jean-Claude Guimberteau, M.D. demonstrated that fascia can be manipulated and is an extremely dynamic structure, responding to pressure, movement, and many other factors. A video of this may be seen here. (*Disclaimer: This video shows endoscopic video of living tissue under the skin, including some images of blood. Please do not view if you are sensitive to such material.) Cold fascia sticks together, much like you might see meat as a rather hard block of flesh in the refrigerator. But warm the meat up by cooking it, and suddenly those adhesions vanish. By heating your fascia with hot stones, the therapist is better able to manipulate it and gently break it apart, encouraging better movement and dynamism within the structural fibers of the tissue itself and potentially increasing range of motion.
Besides these benefits, hot stone massage encourages one of the deepest relaxation experiences of all the massage modalities. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who does not fall asleep (or get very close to that state) during a hot stone massage, even if they do not normally fall asleep in other sessions. As a therapist, I can say that almost every client who has received a hot stone massage has fallen asleep and awakened feeling warm, comfortable, and deeply relaxed. There is something profoundly comforting about the heat that is passed from the stones to the body, and clients often find that they are more grounded than they have been in a long time after receiving a hot stone massage.
With these benefits in mind, I encourage everyone to try hot stone massage at least once, even if you only ask your therapist to give you a "trial." For instance, I offer a ten-minute hot stone massage as a treatment upgrade option every time a client successfully refers someone to me. I've even used them on deep tissue clients to help warm up and work out especially difficult areas. The heat and pressure melts the muscles more effectively than my hands can do by themselves, making them an indispensable tool. Give hot stone massage a try, and share any experiences you have had with it or questions you have about it in the comments section below!