Flick through any spa brochure or glossy magazine and you’ll find descriptions aplenty of the ‘healing’ properties of massage.
Go for one of these luxury treatments and you’re sure to feel better: more relaxed, perhaps in less pain.
After all, there must be a good reason why massage has been used for thousands of years, with evidence it was employed to alleviate aches as long ago as 2700 BC by Chinese doctors.
Now a scientific study suggests it really could be more than just a pleasurable experience, with massage actually helping damaged muscles regenerate.
Flick through any spa brochure or glossy magazine and you’ll find descriptions aplenty of the ‘healing’ properties of massage. Go for one of these luxury treatments and you’re sure to feel better: more relaxed, perhaps in less pain
A study by Harvard University in the U.S., published in October, showed that ‘mechanotherapy’ (the use of mechanical means, such as massage, to treat an injury) enhances the process of muscle regeneration, apparently making damaged muscle heal faster and stronger, by pushing unhelpful molecules involved in the immune response out of the damaged tissue.
The scientists used a massage ‘gun’ — a robotic device that applies force through a soft silicone head — to treat the hind legs of mice given a myotoxin injection, a type of paralysing venom.
They found that applying force with the massage gun for 14 days helped clear neutrophils (white blood cells involved in cell repair) and reduced cytokines and chemokines (immune system proteins that help regulate inflammation) by ‘squeezing’ them out of the tissue. Without these inflammatory immune cells, the muscle fibres healed better than in mice that hadn’t been treated with massage.
While neutrophils and cytokines are helpful as part of the immune response immediately following injury, if they hang around too long they actually prohibit healing, the researchers suggest.
‘The right amount of inflammation is good for you because it promotes muscle growth, but if there’s too much inflammation it can cause damage,’ says Dr Leon Creaney, a consultant in sport and exercise medicine at BMI The Alexandra Hospital in Cheshire.
There must be a good reason why massage has been used for thousands of years, with evidence it was employed to alleviate aches as long ago as 2700 BC by Chinese doctors
He says this study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, chimes with what sports medics and physiotherapists have long thought about massage — that it helps to disperse inflammation, which seems to improve pain and increase range of motion.
A 2012 study, also published in Science Translational Medicine, in which scientists analysed biopsies of massaged muscle, showed it had less inflammation compared with controls after exercise-induced damage, notes Dr Creaney. Sam MacGregor, clinical lead physiotherapist at the University of Loughborough, adds: ‘This supports the idea that when you’ve got inflammation, if you give it a “flush” with a massage you can help get rid of a lot of the “bad stuff” — and it provides more insight into exactly how that works, which is reassuring.’
But the scans of the muscle in the latest study go further, showing that not only does dampening the inflammation improve pain, but that doing so speeds up the ability of the tissue to heal.
As Bo Ri Seo, a biomedical engineer and lead author of the new research, explains: ‘Lots of people have been trying to study the beneficial effects of massage and other mechanotherapies on the body, but up to this point it hadn’t been done in a systematic, reproducible way. Our work shows a clear connection between mechanical stimulation and immune function. This has promise for regenerating a wide variety of tissues, including bone, tendon, hair and skin.’
However, it’s not time for every doctor’s surgery to get a massage bed and a dimmer switch just yet — for while studies such as this one are very promising, they are in no way definitive, says Dr Creaney.
‘This is a lab study done on cells in mice, and the applicability of laboratory work like this to frontline medicine is limited,’ he says. ‘Just because something works in the lab, that’s no guarantee that it translates all the way up to clinical practice in humans.
‘For example, we know massage is fine for muscle recovery from something such as delayed-onset muscle soreness caused by exercise, but we don’t tend to recommend it when someone has actually torn a muscle, as in that case physically agitating it can encourage it to bleed more.’
Sam MacGregor adds: ‘When we use massage, we’re trying to create the optimum conditions for healing and muscle repair. But would massage on its own, without rehabilitation work and exercise, be effective? I would still question that.’
As a complementary therapy, though, massage is and will remain ‘an important tool’.
‘This study is promising, but even if we need more research into the mechanism of how massage helps healing, if it works, it works — and I see time and again in practice that it does work.’