Many people - both athletes and health professionals - have long spoken of how a massage after vigorous exercise eases inflammation, improves blood flow and reduces muscle tightness. Massage unquestionably feels good and seems to reduce pain as well as helping muscles recover, but until now no one really understood exactly why massage has this beneficial effect.
The study, which was published in the February 1st issue of Science Translational Medicine, details how they found 11 brave young male volunteers to endure exercise to exhaustion and undergo five incisions in their legs to obtain muscle tissue for analysis and comparison.
Now researchers have found exactly what happens to muscles when a massage therapist goes to work on them.
On the first day the researchers biopsied one leg of each volunteer at rest. On the second session the volunteers were asked to exercise vigorously for more than an hour on a stationary bicycle until they could go not endure any more. One thigh of each volunteer was then massages for 10 minutes whilst leaving the other to recover on its own.
The researches then biopsied the thigh muscle in each leg immediately after the massage in order to compare the massaged thigh with the other that was left to recover on its own. They then repeated this step after allowing another two-and-a-half hours rest to track the process of muscle injury and repair. What they found confirmed why massage has so many beneficial effects. Vigorous exercise causes tiny tears in the muscle fibers which leads to an immune reaction known as inflammation. This occurs as the body gets to work repairing the injured cells caused during the exercise.
They found that massage reduces the production of cytokines in our body, which play a critical role in inflammation. The massaged thigh also experienced stimulated mitochondria, the powerhouses inside our cells that convert glucose into the energy essential for cell repair and function. “The bottom line is that there appears to be a suppression of pathways in inflammation and an increase in mitochondrial biogenesis,” helping the muscle adapt to the demands of increased exercise, said the senior author, Dr. Mark A. Tarnopolsky.
Dr. Tarnopolsky said that massage works quite differently from other anti-inflammatory drugs, which reduce inflammation and pain but may actually retard healing. “With massage, you can have your cake and eat it too—massage can suppress inflammation and actually enhance cell recovery.”
Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School, said “This is important research, because it is the first to show that massage can reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines which may be involved in pain.” Although she was not part of the study, Dr. Field was very pleased with the results. “We have known from many studies that pain can be reduced by massage based on self-report, but this is the first demonstration that the pain-related pro-inflammatory cytokines can be reduced.” she said
Getting a massage from a professional masseur is obviously more expensive than taking a pain-killer. But, as many more people are discovering, it is better to have a massage performed properly by a qualified therapist to maximize its benefits. Dr Tarnopolsky suggests that, in the long run, a professional massage may be even better than a pill.
A post-workout sports massage is designed to help aid recovery after exercise. Make sure to book in for your appointment for after your next gym session.