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Massage May Help Sore Muscles Recover

Study Suggests Post-Exercise Massage Decreases Inflammation and Could Enhance Muscle Growth
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 1, 2012 -- There may be more to love about massage than just the "ahhhhh." A new study shows that kneading muscles after hard exercise decreases inflammation and helps your muscles recover.

The study hints that massage after exercise may help relieve soreness, and may also help muscles become fitter faster -- two benefits that have thus far been mutually exclusive in the “no pain, no gain” world of athletics.

For the study, researchers put 11 men through a hard bout of exercise. It was the kind of session that was tough to finish and would normally have made an athlete stiff and sore for a few days afterward.

Following their workouts, each man got a 10-minute, Swedish-style massage, but only on one leg. The other leg was rested and used for comparison. Researchers repeatedly sampled muscle tissue from both legs before and after exercise.

They used gene-profiling techniques to look for chemical changes in muscle cells. They saw two main differences between the legs that were massaged and those that were rested.

First, massage switched on genes that decrease inflammation. Many painkilling medications also work by blocking inflammation. Second, massage activated genes that promote the creation of mitochondria, structures that are the energy factories inside cells. The fitter a muscle cell is, the more mitochondria it tends to have.

Could Massage Boost Muscle Fitness?

“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,” says researcher Mark A. Tarnopolsky, MD, PhD, a professor of pediatrics and head of Neuromuscular and Neurometabolic Disease at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Mitochondria, he says, 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,” Tarnopolsky says.

If further research can duplicate and expand on these findings, Tarnopolsky says that would mean that massage may be uniquely beneficial to muscle recovery and muscle growth.

In recent years, a number of studies have shown that remedies for muscle soreness that work by turning down inflammation -- things like ice baths or anti-inflammatory medications -- may also have a downside. They may also block muscle repair and growth, which depends on inflammation.

“People were starting to feel it was a one-to-one link:  You suppress inflammation, you [lessen] adaptation,” says Tarnopolsky.  “But this appears to be an intervention that suppresses the inflammatory response but still allows, and actually enhances, the [recovery] response.” The study is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine

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