Hot stone therapy can increase joint flexibility, among other benefits.

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Modern-day life is stressful. Work and relationships are just two of the multiple causes of tension in our lives, and that tension can work its way into our muscles, joints or lower back, leaving us feeling like we've been pummeled in a heavyweight boxing match. It can keep us up at night and lead to ulcers and even depression.

"Studies show that stress is the No. 1 root of a lot of diseases and disorders," says Chris Turley for the Bondi Junction Massage and Float Centre in Australia. "Whether it's stress from work, home or daily activities, the result is the same: Too much stress can lead to health problems. And because we can never run away from it, the only way to deal with it is to manage stress efficiently" [source: Turley].

Fortunately, though, there are a number of massage techniques that can help counter-balance the effects of stress, and get our bodies feeling back to normal. Hot stone massage is one of more than 80 tension-managing massage therapies, and it's gaining in popularity [source: WebMD]. The theory behind hot stone massage is that the direct, penetrating heat given off by the polished stones relaxes muscles, allowing the therapist to access deeper muscle layers for a more thorough massage.

Though considered a newer technique, hot stone massage is actually an ancient art that's enjoying a renaissance. The technique dates back to 1500 B.C., when it was employed by Europeans and native North Americans [source: Ladock].

Contrary to popular thought, the hot stones aren't simply strategically placed on the body and left there; although a therapist can place them on certain "energy points" or acupressure points of the body, including the spine, hands, feet and even toes to help prepare the body for massage. Instead, a therapist will typically combine these super-smooth stones and complementing oils with steady pressure (either full body or targeted areas) to warm muscles, tendons and ligaments, which can relieve chronic pain, reduce stress and promote deep relaxation.

Like most massage techniques, hot stone massage is proven to be safe and effective in treating a litany of conditions, including pain associated with fibromyalgia, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome and other chronic musculoskeletal conditions, pain and tension resulting from strained muscles, muscle spasms and chronic stress, while increasing joint flexibility.

The hot stones also expand blood vessels, which improves circulation and "energy flow" throughout the body, aiding in detoxification, stimulating our immune system and improving digestion. According to WebMD, a review of more than 12 studies reveals that massage is effective in relieving anxiety, lowering cortisol levels by up to 50-percent while increasing levels of neurotransmitters that help reduce depression. It has even been known to aid in insomnia.

"It's really hard to get a good quality sleep when you're over fatigued," says Turley. "With the relaxation you get from this therapy, it makes it easier for you to doze off into a deep sleep which your body needs to recuperate from daily fatigue" [source: Turley].

However, the treatment isn't recommended for everyone. Patients with serious muscle injuries should ask their doctors before getting a hot stone massage, as it might aggravate the existing injury. Cool stones, in fact, might be employed to reduce muscle inflammation [source: Ladock]. Other concerns include people with skin rashes or sores (or open wounds) and women who are pregnant. If you have any concerns, check with your doctor.

Last, remember that the stones should be hot, but should not burn. If you find that you're uncomfortable with the treatment, for any reason, tell the therapist immediately.