After vigorous exercise, a good massage feels really great. It helps to ease muscle soreness and relax away muscle tension. Massage therapists and athletes have long known that massage reduces signs of inflammation and reduces muscle tightness. Until now it was unknown how massage helps stressed muscles. However, a recent research study published in Science Translational Medicine shows how massage affects muscles at the cellular level.
In the study, 11 courageous young male volunteers had a biopsy performed on each leg while at rest. The men then exercised vigorously on a stationary bicycle to the point of exhaustion (more than 60 minutes). After the exercise, each had 10 minutes of massage performed on one randomly selected leg. Each leg was biopsied again immediately after the massage. A third biopsy was taken after the legs were allowed 2 ½ hours to rest and recover.
The biopsy samples allowed the researchers to study muscle tissue at rest, after exercise induced damage, and again during recovery. The data also let them compare the difference massage makes in the recovery process. The study found evidence for the ways massage helps to reduce inflammation, as well as how it can enhance muscle recovery:
- Inflammation is caused by an immune reaction that occurs when vigorous exercise creates tiny tears in muscle fibers. Researchers found that massage reduced the production of cytokines, compounds that play a critical role in inflammation.
- Massage stimulated mitochondria inside the cells. These organelles produce energy from glucose which is essential for cellular function and repair.
The authors of the study wrote that the mechanisms responsible for massage reducing pain may be the same as is used by conventional NSAID anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and aspirin. The difference between these methods of treating aches is that massage actually promotes healing, whereas NSAID drugs do not.
It’s nice to have a scientific explanation for how massage helps muscles to recover and heal. As massage therapists, we seek to understand our client’s conditions so we can help to address the cause as well as discomfort of muscle aches whenever we can.
If you are having trouble with sore muscles from an injury or strain, call us to schedule and appointment and find out how massage can help you to feel better.