Massages are a wonderful way to unwind and bask in some much-needed me-time. When hot stones are added to the equation, a routine massage quickly becomes next-level indulgent. The warm stones are surprisingly comforting and can be placed almost anywhere you’re feeling pain or tension: think along the curve of your spine, on the backs of your thighs and calves or even on your stomach and neck.
But what is it, exactly, about adding some heated rocks to the equation that actually promotes healing? And when—if ever—is this form of treatment a bad idea? We reached out to Brooke Riley, a licensed massage therapist and the operations specialist for Massage Heights, a San Antonio-based massage chain and Dr. Nicole Glathe, a board-certified acupuncturist and co-founder of the holistic healing brand, Elix to get to the bottom of it.
1. Hot Stones Are Your Massage’s Primer
Placing smooth, round stones on pressure points and knotted muscles all over the body before a massage helps loosen everything up and gets both your mind and body in the mood for what’s to come. Think about it in the same way that you’d apply a primer to your face before your foundation—hot stones are an essential ingredient to get the most out of this treatment.
“Hot stones allow you to get way more out of your massage,” Riley explains, because “heat promotes muscle relaxation. By placing hot stones at key points on your body before your massage begins, the massage therapist is alleviating muscle tension before they even place their hands on you, making it easier for him or her to give you a soothing deep-tissue massage.”
2. The Heat Helps Promote Oxygen Flow
It’s the heated part that is most important when getting a hot stone massage because the temperature works with your body from the outside, in. As Glathe explains it, you need the raised temperature of the stones to get your blood flowing to your muscles because it’s how oxygen is transported throughout our systems. More oxygen = faster recovery.
“Heat dilates the capillaries, bringing fresh blood to the area, which means built-up elements like lactic acid are flushed away, while healing nutrients, oxygen and new tissue building blocks are brought in,” she says. “Heat is also shown to be comforting from a neurophysiological standpoint and allows for all of our stressors to decrease.”
3. Looser Muscles Via Heated Stones Means Less Pain
Just like all massages are good for your circulatory system, they’re also great for anyone dealing with chronic pain issues, like arthritis. A hot stone massage is especially effective because of the deep-tissue action it allows, says Riley. Even if your pain isn’t recurring and is just a random kink in your neck, your massage therapist will know how to manipulate the stones ahead of your session to help you feel better walking out than you did walking in.
“Many of my patients living with chronic pain see benefits from hot stone massages,” she says. “The heat allows the massage therapist to manipulate deeper muscle tissue, which leads to greater muscle relaxation, decreased muscle spasms, increased range of motion and—most importantly—reduced pain.”
4. Hot Stone Massages Promote Better Moods, Too
Believe it or not, you can find happiness at the, err, hand, of a heated stone, say the pros. More study is needed to determine the exact neurological connection between our pressure points and stress hormones but, as Riley explains, hot stone placement is key to leaving your appointment feeling super zen.
“The stones are placed at specific pressure points in order to relieve tension, elevate your mood and combat stress,” she says. “This physical reduction of pressure actually helps reduce mental stress because when the body is relaxed, the mind is able to relax, and you can leave the hot stone massage feeling rejuvenated.”
5. On the Other Hand, Heat Isn’t Always the Best Medicine
We know now that heat generates blood flow and gets it moving straight to those hot spots to help ease sore muscles, promote better circulation and reduce chronic pain. But unlike a mid-day latte pick-me-up, heat isn’t always a good idea.
“Heat should not be used in acute inflammation or fresh injuries, as increasing blood flow would increase swelling,” says Glathe. For these ailments, it’s best to RICE it: rest, ice, compression, and elevation, and follow your doctor’s orders, of course.
Keep in mind that one of the great things about a hot stone massage—the ease with which your therapist will be able to give you a deep-tissue massage—might also make you quite sore the next day. You shouldn’t be “can’t-take-the-stairs” sore, but you’ll definitely feel something other than relaxed. (But trust us, it’s worth it.)