Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:41:18 AM CST

Top Stories

Shiatsu Loft Berlin/FLIKR

Massage therapy focuses on fixing the problem whereas pain medication masks it, doctors said.

Massaging away pain gains validation with new study

by Katy Nielsen and Mitch Montoya
Feb 01, 2012


Shiatsu Loft Berlin/FLIKR

Massage therapists have long known about the healing benefits of massage therapy, now researchers have shown what's happening on a microscopic level.

People who relax with a massage applaud the soothing and therapeutic effects it has on weary or strained muscles. Now scientists know why.

Researchers from McMaster University in Ontario identified molecular reactions showing how massage reduces inflammation and promotes better cellular function after aerobic exercise. Massage could potentially be used to promote muscle performance and to function as a pain reliever, the study concluded. The research was published Wednesday in Science Transitions Medicine.

“These finding are important because there is little biological and molecular data in the area of massage and manual therapy,” said Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, a neurologist and co-author of the study. “These findings represent at least a first step where other researchers can explore several of the pathways that we have identified and determine longer term potential benefits of massage.”

For the study, researchers had 11 men do exhaustive aerobic exercise and then had massage therapists give them a 10-minute massage focused on the legs. Later, a small biopsy of muscle tissue was removed so scientists could observe reactions on a cellular level. They found reduced levels of chemicals that contribute to inflammation after the tissue was massaged.

Along with identifying lower inflammation levels, the study also found massage helped with the production of mitochondria. These parts of the cell help with the production of energy and are critical to their function, Tarnopolsky said.

Since poor mitochondrial function is associated with aging and disease, massage is likely to be therapeutic because it encourages the production and greater performance of mitochondria, he said.

While researchers are careful not to say this definitively proves massage is an effective pain reducer, other scientists report their work with patients indicates the practice works.
Orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist Dr. David F. Beigler of Northshore University Healthsystem said he is not surprised by the findings of the study.

“As for massage, the theory is that it improves blood flow within the muscles,” Beigler said. “Muscle soreness is from use of the muscles to the point of breakdown or lactic acid buildup.”

Tarnopolsky and his colleagues found that there was lactic acid build up in muscle cells of participants. The study found that massage didn’t reduce lactic acid buildup but other pathways that reduce inflammation may be what actually helps mitigate pain.

“Massage therapy helps to break down scarred or strained tissue, as well as improve blood flow,” said Sergio Rojas, movement specialist, nutritionist and owner of Redefined Fitness & Physical Therapy in Chicago.

Athletes often exert their bodies to extremes, which can lead to injury. These findings could help athletes more effectively treat themselves if they experience pain instead of relying on medication.

“Often, with pain medication, athletes do not know that they are causing further damage because they don't feel the pain,” Rojas said. “But with the pressures of performing, especially with the amounts of money at stake in sports today, athletes will often take pain meds just to get out on the court or field, so that they can prove their worth.”

There is an important distinction people should make between massage therapy treatment and pain medication, Biegler said.

“As for massage, the theory is that it improves blood flow within the muscles,” Beigler said. “Pain medication just masks symptoms.”

Even though the study did not measure whether or not massage relieved pain, it does provide promising further research, Tarnopolsky said.

“Our next question is whether or not massage can work in elderly or other people who haven’t exercised,” he said.

Reducing inflammation may be improved with massage so it could be used for pain relief, he said. But more research needs to be done to confirm it is effective for all people.