Aug. 19, 2004 -- In addition to the thousands of athletes, coaches, and trainers who are making the Olympics happen in Athens this week, 100 volunteer massage therapists are on hand to knead the knots from bodies pushed to the limit. It is widely believed in sports medicine circles that massage helps muscles recover faster after intense exercise, but new findings from the U.K. do not support the theory.
Investigators found that massages done after exercise did not increase the blood flow to muscles, which is associated with enhanced muscle recovery. However, massages did increase blood flow to the skin, suggesting that massage may actually hinder muscle recovery by diverting blood from the muscles. The findings are published in the August issue of the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
These results question the effectiveness of massage after exercise on muscles in the recovery process from a physiological perspective, write lead researcher Tessa Hinds, BSc, and colleagues from Manchester Metropolitan University.
But Hinds is quick to point out that the findings do not mean that therapeutic massage is harmful or of no benefit to competitive athletes. She tells WebMD that the increased blood flow to the skin during massage probably does not affect muscle recovery and that there has been little research into the psychological benefits of massage in the athletic arena.
"The message is certainly not that massage has no place (in sports medicine)," she tells WebMD. "Nobody has really looked at issues like endorphin release and other endpoints suggesting a psychological benefit. We all know how we feel after we have a massage. We feel wonderful, and that could certainly translate into improved performance."
Physical therapy professor Lynn Millar, PhD, agrees. Millar tells WebMD that in several studies measuring delayed onset muscle soreness, massage after exercise was associated with a decrease in perceived pain.
Millar, who is a spokeswoman for the American College of Sports Medicine, says the fact that the study participants were given massages immediately after exercise could explain the failure to find a blood flow benefit.
"Blood flow can remain elevated for 30 minutes or more after exercise, so you wouldn't expect to see big changes with massage," she says. "But there has been some suggestion of a recovery benefit among athletes who have massages one or two hours after exertion."
Later Is Better
In a 1994 study, a 30-minute massage immediately after exercise had no impact on recovery, but muscle soreness was reduced significantly when administered two to six hours later.
Millar recommends that elite athletes and weekend warriors wait an hour or two after exercising before having a massage.
Ron Percht, who is communications director for the American Massage Therapy Association, tells WebMD that more studies are needed on the impact of therapeutic massage on athletic performance. The AMTA represents some 50,000 massage therapists from 27 countries.
"This study was testing a theory as to why massage may provide benefit, and the theory wasn't borne out," he says. "But that doesn't mean that massage isn't beneficial. It just means they haven't found out why or how."