What do you do when you have a stiff neck, sore shoulders or tired joints? Your first instinct is probably to massage the area, take some painkillers and put your feet up to rest. You might even consider getting a massage from a professional, but they tend to be pricey and painkillers are a much cheaper alternative. But painkillers have a multitude of side effects which may affect your health, from nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea to muscle spasms and liver failure. Massage, on the other hand, makes you relax, brings down your blood pressure, providing a long-lasting feeling of pain relief and making you feel good.
So why does massage therapy make us feel so good, inside and out?
For thousands of years, we’ve known that massage feels good and it does good. That’s why medical practitioners and therapists have prescribed and recommended massage for millennia. We know from scientific research, the countless reports and studies, and subjective opinions from massage clients that massage therapy reduces pain and helps with stress. What we haven’t realised, at least not until some decades ago, is why massage works so well. Not knowing why meant that massage was viewed with disdain from the medical community. In the past, doctors and nurses saw massage therapy as something they didn’t veto but they didn’t always prescribe it nor did they have a lot of respect for it. The public generally saw massage as a luxury, a special treat rather than a medical treatment.
It is estimated that 18 million people a year choose massage therapy, making it the fifth most used type of alternative medicine. Many clinical trials and studies have shown that massage therapy on a regular basis can help with chronic pain, improve joint mobility and increase flexibility but the biological effects of massage on muscles have been unclear until recently.
A little bit about massage
Massage is a therapy that involves applying varying amounts of pressure on muscles, soft tissue and manipulating joints to reduce pain and tension. The techniques also stimulate blood flow, improve circulation and encourage a relaxing state of mind. From therapeutic styles like Swedish massage and medicinal ones like sports massage to sexually stimulating styles like tantric massage, there are various types of massage therapies. Whatever the style, massage therapy is performed by highly trained massage therapists.
Swedish massage is the most basic and common style. All therapists are trained in this type before any other type. Swedish massage is a highly therapeutic massage form that focuses on gentle movements but firm pressure. It is a full body massage that can be slow and gentle or vigorous and intense, depending on whether the client wants relaxation or therapeutic benefits. Swedish massage is made up of five basic rubs – stroking, kneading, friction, percussion and vibration. The movements are always rhythmic, smooth and flowing.
Therapeutic massage can vary in intensity and various medical benefits can be achieved for acute and chronic health problems. The most popular choices are deep tissue massage and sports massage. In both of these styles, the therapist uses greater pressure than in a classic Swedish massage and cross fibre friction techniques in order to release tension and iron out muscle knots (also referred to as adhesions).
According to a survey conducted by the American Massage Therapy Association in 2016
- 78 per cent of people said their main reason for getting a massage in the past 12 months was medical – they were after relief from pain, soreness, stiffness and spasms, speeding up the recovery time between workouts and preventing muscle injury – or stress-related
- 88 per cent of people saw massage as being beneficial to maintaining health
- 71 per cent of people thought massage therapy should be considered as a form of healthcare
If we used to believe that massage therapy was unreliable, many of us are now relying on it to help some of our most persistent health issues. So what has changed? Why are physicians and other medical professionals starting to recommend a form of therapy that has little scientific evidence for its benefits? There are a lot of reasons behind this. It may be because of the improvement in the massage curriculum and the licence requirements for it. But when it comes to the medical community, it’s mainly down to the research and there is an increasing amount of scientific research due to the rising interest in the therapy.
Various studies have shown that massage therapy aids in the body’s healing processes on a cellular level. After just one session, the body starts responding to the treatment. Researchers performed tests on participants before and after an intense workout and one group received massage therapy after exercise while the other didn’t. The blood and muscle tests from the first group (who received massage) surprised researchers. Their tissue showed an increase in a gene responsible for mitochondria development. Mitochondria are organisms responsible for cell growth and energy production. Kneading muscle tissue (typical of a Swedish, deep tissue or sports massage) was proven to ‘deactivate’ the chemicals associated with inflammation and so helped to reduce or prevent muscle soreness. The results also contradicted the long-assumed theory that massage pushes lactic acid out of muscles. In fact, it has more to do with the deactivation of the chemicals responsible for inflammation.
So what’s the point here? Well, this shows that massage therapy is actually cutting and improving recovery time after exercise and preventing injury. Massage therapy helps the body on a cellular level. This sort of research and results are the ones that can help show people, from physicians to the general public, that massage therapy is a proper way to treat pain, inflammation, soreness and help with tissue healing.
Massage and how it reduces pain after exercise: a study
One particular study looks into massage and how it reduces inflammatory signalling after muscle damaged caused by exercise. Conducted in February 2012 by a group of researchers from McMaster University (based in Hamilton) and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging (based in California), the study explored how massage affects the body at a cellular level.
To assess this, 11 young male participants peddled vigorously on stationary bicycles for 70 minutes. Then, either a 10 minute massage or no treatment was given after the exercise was given to their quadriceps.
It was found that massage stimulates the pathways responsible for carrying focal adhesion kinase (a protein that’s involved in cellular adhesion) and extracellular signal-regulated kinase (a molecule that regulates various bodily functions including cell division). This boosts the ability of cells to make new mitochondria, which are centres of cells that produce energy, and thus affects muscle endurance and recovery time. Massage also reduced the production of factors and proteins that were responsible for causing muscle fibre injury and cellular stress. This reduces inflammation and pain – much like painkillers. Originally, it was assumed that massage pushed lactic acid, a by-product of exercise that causes muscle soreness, out of the body. However this study debunked this theory – researchers observed there was actually no difference in lactic acid levels in the legs that were massaged and the legs that weren’t.
According to the original abstract, “when [massage is] administered to skeletal muscle that has been acutely damaged through exercise, massage therapy appears to be clinically beneficial by reducing inflammation and promoting mitochondrial biogenesis”.
Massage is a lot more than a “feel-good” therapy. It’s well-known for its therapeutic effects which go a lot further than creating a good mood. Massage stimulates the release of feel-good hormones such as serotonin into the bloodstream, and they work to calm and stabilise mood. This then lowers your blood pressure. Massage also works knots out of the muscles, which feels fantastic. As well as this, massage has a lesser-known benefit – it also helps reduce delayed onset muscle soreness by stimulating various cellular functions such as cell division so tissues are repaired more quickly. With all these benefits, you can see that regular massage sessions are a good investment to make, particularly if you’re an athlete.
Read our earlier post: 9 of the best massages and what they’re for