D. PhD. FRCPC
Many athletes swear by a good massage after exercise. But until recently massage was thought to be nothing more than a relaxing activity with no proven health benefits. Even though many health professionals also advocated for massage, as it was thought to improve blood circulation and reduce inflammation and muscle tightness, still it was thought of more as a holistic and well-being activity than as proven healing therapy. There was just no concrete evidence available of the health-giving properties of a proper massage.
Massage versus NSAIDs
Recent research published in the February issue of Science Translational Medicine has proven the health benefits of massage by studying the effects that vigorous exercise has on muscle tissues followed by the effect a rigorous massage has on the same tired muscles. The research was authored by Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, a pediatric and medical professor at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. He found that “massage can suppress inflammation and actually enhance cell recovery”. This is different from the effect of non-steroidal inflammatory suppressants such as Advil and other pain killers on muscles. Repeated use of NSAIDs has an adverse effect on the stomach. Using these painkillers is also known to slow the speed of healing so people would have to make a trade-off between reducing inflammation and pain versus slowed healing. Dr. Tarnopolsky said about using NSAIDs that “There's some theoretical concern that there could be a maladaptive response with repeated use”. With the help of a good massage therapist, Dr. Tarnopolsky has said that people can now “have their cake and eat it too”. Since it has now been proven that with massage, unlike with painkillers, reduced inflammation and pain go hand in hand with enhanced healing.
This was proven by an experiment that involved taking muscle samples from brave young volunteers by a team of doctors. Five samples were taken for cell biopsy at the following times. The eleven volunteers each gave a muscle sample from one leg while at rest during a preliminary visit. This was followed by a second visit where they were each requested to cycle for more than an hour until they were exhausted. One thigh of the exercisers was then massaged for 10 minutes and then immediately incised to remove a muscle tissue sample.
We already know that excessive exercise causes tiny tears in the muscle fibers. These tiny tears trigger an immune system response where the area may become sore, heat up, become swollen or become pinkish-red in color. This response is known as inflammation. The doctors knew that massage reduced the pain caused by exercise and wanted to see what the effect of massage was on the inflammation. A third sample was removed from the leg that didn’t receive a massage at the same time. This sample was used to show inflammation and track recovery from inflammation when the leg was left alone to heal on its own without any massage.
After two and a half hours to allow for recovery and repair, a fourth and fifth muscle sample was removed from each leg again. These muscle samples were to be check for how massage affected muscle inflammation and repair.
The massaged samples were found to contain fewer cytokines while it was also found to stimulate the mitochondria present in the tissue samples. Cytokines play a vital role in an increased inflammatory response. Reduced cytokine means that the inflammatory response on the massaged tissues was contained and reduced substantially. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cells that convert glucose into energy. They play an important role in the recovery and repair of cells. Active muscle tissues have more mitochondria to compensate for increased activity in muscles. Stimulation of those mitochondria means that recovery and repair of the many mini tears caused by excessive exercise as well as the inflammatory response triggered by the muscular tears are accelerated.
Massage As Therapy For Speedy Muscle Repair
Massage therapists manipulate the soft tissues of the body with hands, feet, fingers, elbows, and knees. There is three-thousand-year-old archaeological evidence that massage has been used for many years for healing purposes. This historical knowledge of our ancestors has now been researched and proven by science. Tiffany Field is the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School. She is aware of this research and says “This is important research because it is the first to show that massage can be used to reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines which may be involved in pain.” “We have known from many studies that pain can be reduced by massage by self-report, this is the first demonstration that pain-related pro-inflammatory cytokines can be reduced”, Dr. Fields added. Massage therapy is an expensive proposition but Dr. Tarnopolsky thinks the expense could cement it in people’s minds as a therapy worth getting and as a more beneficial alternative to NSAIDs. For instance, if someone says, “This is free and it might make you feel better but it may slow down your recovery”, do you still want it? Or would you rather get a post-exercise massage for 50 bucks that also might enhance your recovery?