Strong Evidence for the Biological Basis for Massage Therapy

quadriceps massageIf your muscles are sore after a workout, should you reach for a pain pill or get a massage? A new scientific study suggest that you should go for the massage.

Massage after vigorous exercise reduces pain and speeds muscle recovery, without the counterproductive side effects of drugs like aspirin and naproxen, concludes Dr. Mark A. Tarnopolsky, a researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

Specifically, his research found that massage activated genes that reduce the production of cytokines, which are involved in inflammation and pain, and it stimulated mitochondria function, which drives cell function and repair.

“The bottom line,” says Dr. Tarnopolsky, “is that there appears to be a suppression of pathways in inflammation and an increase in mitochondrial biogenesis.”

A NY Times story on the study asked Dr. Tarnopolsky about the difference between the effects of massage and drugs on post-exercise pain: “Massage works quite differently from NSAIDs and other anti-inflammatory drugs, which reduce inflammation and pain but may actually retard healing. Many people, for instance, pop an aspirin or Aleve at the first sign of muscle soreness. ‘There’s some theoretical concern that there is a maladaptive response in the long run if you’re constantly suppressing inflammation with drugs,’ [Dr. Tarnopolsky] said. ‘With massage, you can have your cake and eat it too — massage can suppress inflammation and actually enhance cell recovery.’”

The Times story also quotes Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Resarch Institute. “We have known from many studies,” she said, “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.”

Another report on the study emphasizes the molecular-biology angle of the findings. In an article entitled “Massage’s Mystery Mechanism Unmasked,” the prestigious journal Science reports,  “Massage’s healing touch may have more to do with DNA than with good hands. [Dr. Tarnopolsky's] study has revealed for the first time how kneading eases sore muscles — by turning off genes associated with inflammation and turning on genes that help muscles heal.”

The Science article also quotes a muscle-injury researcher at Ohio State University. Dr. Thomas Best, an expert on evidence-based sports medicine says, “This is probably the best study I’ve seen that looks at the biological basis for massage therapy.”

The study designed a very simple massage protocol consisting of three basic Swedish massage techniques. These techniques are simple enough that anyone can learn them very quickly (in my couples massage class, for example), so you probably don’t even need a professional massage to reap the benefits found in the study – a nice rub-down from your partner or a family member or a good self-massage should do the trick.

One of my favorite details about this study is its methodology. The investigators somehow managed to convince 11 young men to permit multiple muscle biopsies to get the tissues needed to for the experiment. I don’t know if they were jabbing them with needles or taking samples with a scalpel. Regardless, I’d just like to extend my sincere gratitude to those guys for offering up their bodies up for the advancement of science.

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