Few things feel better than a whole-body massage. Its proponents claim that it can relax anti invigorate you, remove metabolic waste and toxins, stimulate recovery and promote better athletic performance. And that’s the short list! But to make things more complicated, different massage techniques have various effects.
Three common massage techniques include effleurage, a stroking technique in which the heels and palms of the hands glide over the part to he massaged; petrissage, or holding the affected tissue between the thumb and forefinger while you roll, lift and twist it; and tapotement, which involves cupping or percussive-type action. Deep transverse friction massage involves massaging the site of a lesion (where scar tissue may be forming, for example) anti facilitates normal collagen alignment in tendons and ligaments.
Certainly, massage makes you feel good, but what are some of its physiological effects? Proponents of massage are challenged to provide specific mechanisms for the purported benefits, but does science support the multitude of claims made by massage therapists
Lactic acid is one of the most misunderstood chemicals in our bodies. It’s accused of being a metabolic poison that needs to be eliminated, and is blamed for the soreness we feel the day or two after intense exercise. (Actually, the soreness is caused by tearing of myofibrils) Proponents of massage often claim that it helps rid the muscles of lactic acid.
In a study conducted at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, 22 men ran to exhaustion, then either 1) recovered passively in a supine position, 2) rode a bike at a very low intensity or 3) had their legs massaged by a certified massage therapist. Researchers drew blood from the test subjects and determined their lactate (lactic acid) levels at three, five, nine, 15, and 20 minutes post-exercise. Low-intensity cycling was found to be best for lowering blood lactate levels, and no difference existed between the blood levels of subjects who recovered passively and had a massage.
This study doesn’t suggest that massage is useless for athletes, but does show that its effects may have little to do with the removal of lactic acid. This makes sense if lactic acid doesn’t cause muscle soreness.
DECREASING MUSCLE SORENESS
We all get sort painful muscles, and a deep, thorough massage maybe your therapy of choice. But does it really diminish pain, or is it all in our heads?
In a study from the University of Mississippi Medical Center, 40 untrained female subjects performed negatives on biceps curls until they were fatigued. In untrained subjects, this will definitely cause delayed-onset muscle soreness! Then they were treated” in one of three ways: upper-body exercise (arm cycling), massage or electrical stimulation immediately after exercise and 24 hours later. A control group wasn’t treated. Researchers found that each of the four groups rated their soreness the same! Neither massage nor exercise decreased muscle soreness felt one day later.
In another study, a combination of warm-up, stretching and massage was found to decrease the soreness after eccentric exercise. Yet the effects are hard to predict and often inconsistent. So does massage help or not? Well, with regard to a “measurable” difference in soreness, seemingly no.
IMPROVING BLOOD FLOW
The data are equivocal on this one. A recently published study from Laurier University in Canada found that massage had no effect on limb blood flow. According to Peter M. Tiidus, PhD, “Light quadriceps contractions were far more effective in improving blood flow than the manual massage itself.”
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
A dearth of science is often used to support a multitude of claims through-out the fitness and health-related fields. Massage is no different. Little scientific evidence shows that massage significantly enhances the recovery process. On the other hand, massage may promote the proliferation of fibroblasts (cells involved in laying down collagen an important component of connective tissue). Massage might enhance the healing process by recruiting these cells, but the evidence is inconclusive at this point.
Nonetheless, massage could be an important component of any athlete’s total training package. You’re thinking, there is no science to back it up. Well, it doesn’t seem to have much physiological effect, but hey, if massage makes you feel better, that may be reason enough to use it as a therapeutic modality. As far as its effect on muscle goes, wait a decade or so science may have yindicated it by then.