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.

Is organic broccoli alternative medicine?

I recently learned that in 2008, the National Center for Health Statistics (a division of the CDC) reported that nearly 4 out of 10 Americans had used Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM) within the calendar year. Not bad.

Massage therapy, yoga, chiropractic work, and acupuncture (among many other therapies) all fit into the CAM category, but so does the use of “natural products.” So if you’re eating organic broccoli, does that make you a practitioner of alternative medicine?

Looking a little deeper, I found the list of natural products, and broccoli wasn’t on there, so I guess the answer is no. But things like fish oil, Echinacea, herb pills, garlic supplements, green tea pills, cranberry pills, milk thistle, and other fine whole food-sy stuff was, and in my opinion (hardly scientific, I’ll grant you) greatly skews the numbers – particularly as “natural products” tops the list when they ranked the use of CAM by the numbers. In 2007, the top 10 CAM therapies go like this:

1. Natural Products (17.7%)
2. Deep Breathing (12.7%)
3. Meditation (9.4%)
4. Chiropractic and Osteopathic (8..6%)
5. Massage (8.3%)
6. Yoga (6.1%)
7. Diet-based therapy (3.6%)
8. Progressive relaxation (2.9%)
9. Guided Imagery (2.2%)
10. Homeopathic treatment (1.8%)

I found it interesting that massage ranked above yoga, I would have guessed that to be the other way around. It was noted that massage use had increased rather dramatically in the five years of the study, and that in 2002 it ranked behind yoga. Another tidbit of info is that women were more likely to use CAM therapies than men. That isn’t too surprising, though I find that my own practice is split fairly evenly between male and female clients.

For any of you who want to check out the gritty details, the report is here. For any of you who want to help massage move up the list, you know where to find me.