Why get a massage? Well, because it feels good, for one thing. But many people also hop on the table with the hope that massage therapy can help promote muscle recovery after a tough workout or provide other benefits.
No one has looked closely at what massage does to muscle at a cellular or molecular level, however. Researchers set out to do just that, and their findings are published in Science Translational Medicine.
The researchers exercised 11 young men to exhaustion over about 70 minutes, then massaged a single leg (determined randomly for each man) for ten minutes. The subjects received a muscle biopsy in both quad muscles to gather samples for massaged and non-massaged legs. The biopsy was repeated after a 2.5-hour rest period.
Researchers analyzed the samples from the different legs to see what was going on after the massage. They found two major changes: reduced signs of inflammation, and an increase in production of mitochondria, the cell’s energy factories.
Curbed production of inflammatory molecules “may reduce pain by the same mechanism as conventional anti-inflammatory drugs” like aspirin and ibuprofen, the authors write.
The authors say that an increase in the number of mitochondria can promote better recovery after a tough exercise session. That finding also means that massage after exercise could help enhance endurance, says Mark Tarnopolsky, an author of the study and a professor of pediatrics and medicine at McMaster University Medical Center in Hamilton, Ont. Nailing down that link would require further research, says Tarnopolsky.