In recent years there seems to be have a move towards more evidence based practise for a range of practitioners. This is not a bad thing for the massage industry as many of the more spurious claims that are made can be challenged and dismissed. However, one of the problems that massage faces is that there is a dearth of quality research available.
There are a number of reasons why this is the case which include a lack of money when compared with the amount of funds available for pharmaceutical trials and also a fundamental problem with much of the research in the natural therapies domain in that designing standard treatment protocols is extremely difficult when most therapists’ practice is based on tailoring a treatment to an individual client’s needs at the time.
A 2012 study into the benefits of sports massage has attempted to redress the issue of quality massage research with findings that are encouraging for the industry.
After a water skiing injury a researcher at McMaster University, Canada, Mark Tarnopolsky, found that massage therapy provided a significant amount of pain relief and he decided that he wanted to understand the underlying mechanism whereby massage aided his recovery.
Along with some colleagues, Tarnolpolsky decided to investigate why massage can reduce pain and the results (for massage therapists and for sports people) were encouraging (1).
For the study, 11 males were exercised to such an extent that they were affected by exercise-induced muscle damage after working out on an upright bicycle. One of their legs was then massaged for 10 minutes. The researchers took muscle biopsy samples from the participants’ vastus lateralis muscles at various times:
– at baseline
– immediately after the massage
– after 2.5 hours of recovery.
The results were extremely encouraging. There is strong support for the hypothesis that exercise can activate the genes which are associated with repair and inflammation and it was no surprise that the researchers observed there was significantly more indicators of cell repair and also inflammation in the biopsy samples post-exercise when compared with the pre-exercise measurements.
However, there was a clear distinction between the study participants’ legs that had been massaged and had not been.
They found that the legs which had received the 10 minutes of sports massage had:
– reduced the amount of exercise induced muscle inflammation by diminishing the activity of a protein, NF-kB
– increased by about 30% a gene that helps muscle cells build mitochondria, PGC-1
– modified levels of other proteins with similar roles in the body.
Although this is only one study and the massage protocol may not be relevant for all sports people, it does provide evidence supporting the use of massage therapy to reduce pain and encourage muscle repair. Further work would need to be carried out to assess the optimum pressure, length of massage and the commencement time after exercise.
But there are few who would argue that getting a massage to reduce pain from sport is a preferable alternative to anti-inflammatory medications.
(1) J. D. Crane, D. I Ogborn et al “Massage Therapy Attenuates Inflammatory Signalling After Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage”. Science Translational Medicine 4, 119ra13 (2012).
By Richard Lane