Post-exercise massage helps muscles heal

One of the themes we heard a lot when I went to massage school was how the “West” and “Western Medicine” was slow (or completely unwilling) to admit that massage, and most of the complementary alternative medicine / alternative healing therapies, actually DID anything other than make the receiver feel good.

A year ago, a study, titled, “Massage Therapy Attenuates Inflammatory Signaling After Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage,” set out to determine what, if any, physiologic changes occurred as a result of sports massage after exercise. The study took 11 men and had them exercise on a stationary bicycle to exhaustion. One thigh received post-exercise therapeutic massage and the other was left to recover on its own. Multiple biopsies were taken of each leg before exercise, immediately after exercise, and then 2 1/2 hours later.

According to a New York Times article, “How Massage Heals Sore Muscles,” the scientists “found that massage reduced the production of compounds called cytokines, which play a critical role in inflammation. Massage also stimulated mitochondria, the tiny powerhouses inside cells that convert glucose into the energy essential for cell function and repair. ‘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.”

The Times article also mentions Tarnopolsky asserted that “massage works quite differently from Nsaids and other anti-inflammatory drugs, which reduce inflammation and pain but may actually retard healing.” Tarnopolsky is quoted as saying, “There’s some theoretical concern that there is a maladaptive response in the long run if you’re constantly suppressing inflammation with drugs… massage can suppress inflammation and actually enhance cell recovery.”

Immediately after graduating massage school in 2003, I met, by pure chance, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Head Athletic Trainer, Rick Burkholder. I thought I had struck gold. I asked how many massage therapists they had on staff, and he said, “we have one part-time massage therapist.” I was stunned, I figured a professional sports organization like the Eagles might have four or five full-time staff massage therapists. He went on to say that if they really needed someone, they would call on the Flyers’ guy, but after having polled the players, they preferred a female therapist.

I sent him a package a few weeks later, magazine articles I had found touting the benefits Olympic athletes gained from pre- and post-event sports massage. I didn’t expect to get a reply – and I didn’t – and I don’t know if the Eagles have changed their tune by now and have a staff of MTs employed. My point in bringing it up is that even the folks you think would recognize the true benefits of massage don’t always get it. But a lot has changed in the 10 years that I’ve been doing this work, and all of it for the better. Science and research are catching up and proving that massage and other complementary alternative therapies have measurable, beneficial value – on emotional, physical, and even physiologic levels. Keep the research coming… it’s all good news.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *