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The Rub With Massage: Does It Really Help Muscles Recover After Exercise?

WebMD Health News

April 26, 2000 -- Massage is widely believed to enhance muscle recovery after intense exercise, even though scientific evidence is lacking, according to a new report in the April issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

"There's no evidence that massage enhances repeated sports performance either, but there may be psychological benefits that shouldn't be overlooked," says study author Brian Hemmings, PhD, a researcher at University College Northampton in the United Kingdom.

Hemmings explored the effect of massage on performance and recovery among eight male amateur boxers. Participants completed two identical punching trials, between which they either rested or had a massage. Researchers monitored the boxers' perceptions about recovery as well as their blood lactate levels.

Lactate is produced by the body when it burns carbohydrates for energy. After prolonged exercise, lactate accumulates in the body, decreasing performance and causing muscular aches and pains. It is, in a sense, what causes the "pain" without which there is no "gain."

Although massage increased the perception of recovery, there was no difference in blood lactate levels between those who received massage and those who rested. Hemmings tells WebMD that similar observations have been made among cyclists.

"Accumulation of blood lactate is thought is to delay muscle recovery," he says. "And an increase in muscle blood flow is thought to reduce lactate levels. But not all studies have shown a positive effect of massage on lactate removal."

In a corresponding editorial, another researcher applauds Hemmings' work. "This study has shown that massage is no different from passive recovery in lactate removal," says Michael Callaghan, MPhil, a senior physiotherapist at Manchester Royal Infirmary in the United Kingdom. Pointing to similar findings among runners, Callaghan adds, "The findings should finally lay this particular ghost to rest."

But one U.S. physician isn't so sure. "There are lots of misconceptions about post-event massage, particularly among marathoners," says Lewis Maharam, MD, president of the New York Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine. As the medical director of several marathons, Maharam tells WebMD that massage enhances muscle recovery when used appropriately.

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