A Look at Massage Therapy


Monday’s New York Times Fitness & Nutrition section recently featured an article titled Athletes take massage into their own hands.  The article discusses the benefits to athletes of massage but more specifically we learn about self-massage methods and the tools for the job.  The article states that ideally hard training athletes should get a massage once a week or every other week.  For many athletes (pros or the wealthy among us) massage is as integral to their preparation as their time in the gym, on the bike, in the pool or on the court.  However for many of us the price is somewhat prohibitive.  Enter self-massage.   We’re told tools such as foam rollers (available here, here, and here), golf balls, tennis balls as well as your own hands are useful in addressing tight, stiff muscles.  DVDs on self-massage techniques are available and there are many demonstrations of these techniques on Youtube.

Over recent months, I’ve come to believe that these massage techniques are beneficial to athletes and everyone else who exercises.  But on what do I base my evidence?  Well, it’s just about all anecdotal.  Massage seems to be beneficial (i.e.  it feels good), various experts recommend it, and many athletes swear by it.  What does science tell us?  Much like everything in the world of science, the value of massage, and the mechanism(s) by which it works is debatable.

To that point, there are three articles on Science Daily that discuss different massage studies.  Massaging Muscles Facilitates Recovery After Exercise profiles a study by the National Institutes of Health and Ohio St. University.  The study suggests that massage indeed does facilitate recovery from strenuous exercise.  The study was done on rabbits though, and both the “exercise” and “massage” was performed by machines which moved the rabbits’ limbs and performed the massage.  This study may well indicate the recuperative value of massage, however we can’t be entirely certain that the same effects occur in humans.

In contrast, Massage After Exercise Myth Busted refutes some of the claimed effects of massage, namely that massage improves circulation and that it speeds removal of lactic acid.  (Not to run away on a very different issue, but the common knowledge on lactic acid and its role and effects on muscle is inaccurate.  Read about lactic acid, lactate and muscular fatigue here.)  I don’t have full access to the Queen’s University study but apparently researches found that neither circulation nor lactic acid removal was facilitated by massage.  Does this then mean that massage is not beneficial in aiding recovery from strenuous exercise?  No.  It simply means that in this study neither circulation was increased (it was actually decreased) nor was lactic acid removed any faster than without massage.  It’s entirely likely that massage promotes recovery by other means.  Perhaps the reduced circulation somehow aids in recovery.  It’s also possible that another different study may find conflicting information.

The third piece, Massage Therapy May Have Immediate Positive Effect On Pain And Mood For Advanced Cancer Patients, tells of a National Institutes of Health study of 380 advanced cancer patients in which both pain and mood was improved through massage therapy.  The article states:

“Researchers think that massage may interrupt the cycle of distress, offering brief physical and psychological benefits. Physically, massage may decrease inflammation and edema, increase blood and lymphatic circulation, and relax muscle spasms. Psychologically, massage may promote relaxation, release endorphins, and create a positive experience that distracts temporarily from pain and depression.”

So what conclusions should we draw?  First, we can say that the mechanisms of massage are not fully understood.  Far more study must be undertaken to determine the hows and the whys of massage.  Second we might take note that there’s very little out there suggesting that massage is unhealthy or harmful.  (The unskilled massage therapist may however pose harm.  Further, there is probably a right and wrong time to employ a specific massage technique–relaxation vs. deep tissue for instance.)  Though massage’s proposed mechanisms–increased blood flow as an example–may be in question the fact that it has been used effectively by so many for so long suggests strongly that there is something good to be had from massage.

Next, I’ll post three self-massage techniques you can use.