Fact Check: NO Evidence That You Can Simply 'Rub Your Arms' To Strengthen Immune System, Prevent Sickness

Fact Check

  • by: Lead Stories Staff
Fact Check: NO Evidence That You Can Simply 'Rub Your Arms' To Strengthen Immune System, Prevent Sickness No Evidence

Is rubbing your arms a proven technique to boost your immune system? No, that's not true: There is no evidence of proof from medical literature that this method can prevent illness. An expert told us they are not familiar with any studies that have substantiated the claim.

The claim appeared in a video (archived here) on TikTok on July 13, 2022. The person in the video began:

Are you sick a lot? Rub your arms to strengthen your immune system.

In the video, the person demonstrates how this technique supposedly works -- by rubbing "the thumb side of the arm, outside and inside."

This is what the video looked like on TikTok at the time of writing:

rubbing arms TikTok.png
(Source: TikTok screenshot taken on Thu Dec 7 19:25:43 2023 UTC)

The person in the video justifies this practice by saying that because there are nerves leading from the thumb to the respiratory tract, rubbing both arms for about 30 seconds every day will stimulate the respiratory tract.

However, Lead Stories did not find any medical or scientific literature that corroborated this specific claim. We searched for "(immune) AND (arm) AND (rub)" and "(immune) AND (arm) AND (rub OR massage)" in three large databases that contain medical and scientific research: PubMed (here and here), ScienceDirect (here and here) and Google Scholar (here and here). The PubMed results were scant and did not include any results that substantiate the claim. The ScienceDirect and Google Scholar searches generated more results; however, the top results -- sorted by relevance to the searches -- did not prove the claim either.

Research has been done to find out whether massage therapy (archived here) can assist in strengthening immune system functions. This peer-reviewed, systematic review (archived here) published in 2016 shows that massages seem to positively affect those living with autoimmune and immune conditions. But the massages described in the review do not specify that the massages affecting the immune system exclusively focus on the arms.

Lead Stories reached out to Dr. Mark Rapaport, the CEO of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute and the chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Utah School of Medicine. Among other areas of research, he has focused on human psychoneuroimmunology and complementary and alternative medicine. He is the lead author of two peer-reviewed articles showing that massage sessions have the potential to positively affect the immune system (here and here). However, the articles do not substantiate the specific claim examined in this fact check, as Rapaport's December 13, 2023 email to Lead Stories makes clear:

We have found that 45 minutes of SMT [Swedish Massage Therapy] or light touch can modulate measures of immune function both acutely and chronically in normal volunteers. At this time, I do not know of any peer reviewed research to support the contentions made in the video nor do I know of convincing neuroanatomical data to support the supposed direct innervation of lungs by the sensory system involving the thumb and forearms. I cannot speak to the relationship between such an intervention and non-Western theories of nerve innervation.

Additionally, there are nerves located throughout the entire body (archived here), and there is no evidence that the nerves found from the arm and to the respiratory tract are unique in preventing illness (archived here).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (archived here) and the National Institutes of Health (archived here), the best ways to prevent diseases that attack the immune system (archived here) include vaccination, proper hygiene and disease screening.

Lead Stories reached out to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, other organizations and centers specializing in immunology, and more individual experts about the claim. We will update this story with any relevant responses.

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