The Effect of Head Massage on the Regulation of the Cardiac Autonomic Nervous System: A Pilot Randomized Crossover Trial

J Altern Complement Med. 2016 Jan;22(1):75-80. doi: 10.1089/acm.2015.0141. Epub 2015 Nov 12.


Objectives: To evaluate the effect of a single 10-minute session of Chinese head massage on the activity of the cardiac autonomic nervous system via measurement of heart rate variability (HRV).

Design: In this pilot randomized crossover trial, each participant received both head massage and the control intervention in a randomized fashion.

Settings/location: The study was conducted at Children's & Women's Health Centre of British Columbia between June and November 2014.

Participants: Ten otherwise healthy adults (6 men and 4 women) were enrolled in this study.

Interventions: The intervention comprised 10 minutes of head massage therapy (HMT) in a seated position compared with a control intervention of sitting quietly on the same chair with eyes closed for an equal amount of time (no HMT).

Outcome measures: The primary outcome measures were the main parameters of HRV, including total power (TP), high frequency (HF), HF as a normalized unit, pre-ejection period, and heart rate (HR).

Results: A single short session (10 minutes) of head massage demonstrated an increase in TP continuing up to 20 minutes after massage and reaching statistical significance at 10 minutes after massage (relative change from baseline, 66% for HMT versus -6.6% for no HMT; p = 0.017). The effect on HF also peaked up to 10 minutes after massage (59.4% for HMT versus 4% for no HMT; p = 0.139). Receiving head massage also decreased HR by more than three-fold compared to the control intervention.

Conclusion: This study shows the potential benefits of head massage by modulating the cardiac autonomic nervous system through an increase in the total variability and a shift toward higher parasympathetic nervous system activity. Randomized controlled trials with larger sample size and multiple sessions of massage are needed to substantiate these findings.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Female
  • Head / physiology*
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Massage*
  • Pilot Projects