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A massage after vigorous exercise unquestionably feels good, and it
seems to reduce pain and help muscles recover. Many people — both
athletes and health professionals – have long contended it eases
inflammation, improves blood flow and reduces muscle tightness. But
until now no one has understood why massage has this apparently
Now researchers have found what happens to muscles when a masseur goes to work on them.
experiment required having people exercise to exhaustion and undergo
five incisions in their legs in order to obtain muscle tissue for
analysis. Despite the hurdles, the scientists still managed to find 11
brave young male volunteers. The study was published in the Feb. 1 issue
of Science Translational Medicine.
On a first visit, they
biopsied one leg of each subject at rest. At a second session, they had
them vigorously exercise on a stationary bicycle for more than an hour
until they could go no further. Then they massaged one thigh of each
subject for 10 minutes, leaving the other to recover on its own.
Immediately after the massage, they biopsied the thigh muscle in each
leg again. After allowing another two-and-a-half hours of rest, they did
a third biopsy to track the process of muscle injury and repair.
exercise causes tiny tears in muscle fibers, leading to an immune
reaction — inflammation — as the body gets to work repairing the injured
cells. So the researchers screened the tissue from the massaged and
unmassaged legs to compare their repair processes, and find out what
difference massage would make.
They 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.
Tarnopolsky, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at McMaster
University in Hamilton, Ontario, said that 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,” he said. “With massage, you can have your cake and eat it
too—massage can suppress inflammation and actually enhance cell
“This is important research, because it is the first to
show that massage can reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines which may be
involved in pain,” said Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research
Institute at the University of Miami Medical School. She was not
involved in the study. “We have known from many studies 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.” she said.
Getting a massage from a professional masseur
is obviously more expensive than taking an aspirin. But, as Dr. Field
points out, massage techniques can be taught. “People within families
can learn to massage each other,” she said. “If you can teach parents to
massage kids, couples to massage each other. This can be cost
Dr. Tarnopolsky suggests that, in the long run, a
professional massage may even be a better bargain than a pill. “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?” he asked. “Or would you
rather spend the 50 bucks for a post-exercise massage that also might
enhance your recovery?”
Correction: An earlier version of this
article misidentified where mitochondria are found; they are inside of
cells, but in the cytoplasm, not the nuclei.