Massage Therapy: A Muscular Miracle


“No pain, no gain,” goes the old exercise adage. But it turns out that massage may reduce our pain and enhance our gains. A recent study published in Science Translational Magazine explains how massage can dramatically improve the way our muscles heal on a cellular level.

Researchers at Ontario’s McMaster University examined the effects of massage on sore muscles by performing biopsies on tissue from the quadriceps of eleven men. After pedaling to exhaustion on exercise bicycles, the men received ten minutes of massage on only one of their thighs. Muscle samples were extracted three times: once prior to the workout, again directly following the massage, and finally two and a half hours afterwards. Upon examination, the tissue provided evidence as to why massaging sore muscles feels so good.

Massage lessened muscle inflammation by reducing cytokines, a protein that causes tissue torn during exercise to swell. Less swelling equals less pain. But what about popping a couple post-workout aspirin for the same reason?

Senior study author Dr. Mark A. Tarnopolsky explains, “There’s some theoretical concern that there is a maladaptive response in the long run if you’re constantly suppressing inflammation with drugs. With massage, you can have your cake and eat it too – massage can suppress inflammation and actually enhance cell recovery.”

Massage enhances cell recovery by spurring on the creation of mitochondria, i.e. the trademark of toned bodies. Dr. Tarnopolsky explains to WebMD, “If someone starts an endurance exercise training program, after two or four months of training, depending on the intensity, you essentially double the volume of mitochondria in muscle. Mitochondria help the cell to take up and use oxygen. The muscles’ ability to extract oxygen is proportional to the amount of mitochondria that are there. Exercise plus massage seems to enhance that pathway.”

So whether you’re seeing a massage therapist or just using the buddy system, a quality rubdown may be the solution to easing soreness while getting the most out of your workout.

Image: Couple’s Massage, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from FoundryParkInn’s photostream.