Massage or massage therapy has been around for a very long time. As a treatment method, it predates many other things used by medical/health professionals today.
According to Wikipedia, evidence of massage has been found in several ancient civilizations around the world such as in China, Greece, and Mesopotamia. The oldest evidence discovered is a wall painting in the Tomb of Akmanthor in Saqqara, Egypt dated 2330 BC.
Taken that impressive age into consideration, it is almost comical that the scientific research we have on the topic is not more conclusive about how it works and the extent of it. Many of the claims you can read online have little to no evidence, and some of it is complete nonsense.
If you want to know more about the massage research and myths, then this lengthy article on Painscience.com is a great resource.
Is Massage Just For Wellness?
Many people regard massage as a form of wellness, and typically visit a masseuse as a way to relax, alleviate sore muscles, or just as a luxurious treat to indulge in on a special occasion because it feels awesome.
I doubt anyone would contest that a massage can make you feel good, and I am sure most would say that it is both relaxing and helps alleviate sore muscles.
But, there is also a large amount of anecdotal evidence that massage can be used to strategically alleviate sore and overworked muscles to reduce recovery time in athletes (both pros and amateurs). I would attest to that.
How Does Massage Potentially Speed Up Muscle Recovery?
As I hinted to in the beginning, the scientific evidence surrounding massage and how it works is not very clear.
However, just because the evidence is not conclusive, does not mean massage can’t speed up muscle recovery. Below I will cover the common arguments used to explain why.
Alleviate DOMS and Help Muscle Recovery and Performance
Some research suggest that massage can help alleviate delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This is a kind of soreness that typically sets in 1-2 days after working out at an unfamiliar intensity. Think squatting heavy for the first time in a while.
If you are feeling less sore, you should be able to perform better the next time you go to the gym.
Other research suggests that myofascial-release using a foam roller or massage ball could help muscle recovery and performance.
However, what is mentioned in both of these meta-analysis referred to in above links, is that more research is needed.
Note: meta-analysis is done by taking a look at all existing evidence and trying to make useful conclusions.
When body parts receive less than an optimal supply of blood, pooling of fluids, accumulation of lactic acids and tensed muscles can follow. The powerful “kneading” that is part of the massage improves blood flow in different areas of the body and potentially even reaching some congested areas.
In a study conducted at the University of Illinois, participants showed better blood circulation in testing areas after receiving massage. Researchers further concluded that the effect is not only confined to one specific area but it may be systemic in nature.
Reduces inflammation – or not…
The body reacts to inflammatory stimuli by releasing a substance called cytokine. Cytokine is responsible for the various responses like swelling, pain, accumulation of fluid and redness in the affected area. One study found that soft rubbing and kneading could potentially reduce the production of these cytokines, and thus be anti-inflammatory. However, this conclusion has been heavily criticized by many.
If the effect of reduced cytokines is anti-inflammatory, it is worth noting that massage might also be inflammatory – especially if it is a rough one.
Have you ever experienced passing stomach gas while you are having the most relaxing time while getting a massage?
You do not have to feel too embarrassed since this is a normal occurrence. Getting a rub on the abdominal area releases excess gases from the gastro-intestinal tract (GIT). A good session relaxes the tissues that make up the digestive tract.
Bloating, discomforts and stomach distention can benefit much from soft manipulation and improve digestion. Better digestion leads to overall better health and potentially better recovery.
Improves Quality Sleep
Massage has been shown to decrease cortisol and increase the level of the two neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
This effect has the potential to do a lot of good things. Often serotonin and dopamine are thought of as the “feel good” brain chemicals, and this could explain why massages make you feel good, but they also have other functions.
In particular, the balance between serotonin and cortisol have a major impact on sleep and sleep quality. With a good amount of serotonin in the late evening, you can expect to fall asleep easier and with better sleep quality. Better sleep quality leads to better muscle recovery!
Less Stress And More Happiness!
Just mentioned above, massage will increase the “feel good” brain chemicals. Actually, massage has even proven effective at reducing depression and anxiety.
While it is hard to quantify how this could help muscle recovery, it is known that stress and high cortisol levels can affect muscle recovery negatively.
Massage For Injuries
In combination with various exercises, massage is also used widely to treat injuries. Several years back, I got a bad leg injury and I couldn’t sit or walk like a normal person.
After several weeks I visited a physiotherapist who treated me with massage (it was very painful) and various mobilization exercises over the course of 10 sessions. After the first session, I already felt better and I believe that it was after 4-5 sessions that I could start using my leg somewhat normal again.
Besides that, the many hours we spend in awkward positions interacting with phones or computers every day is putting an enormous strain on our muscles especially neck and back. I think a good massage can go a long way to alleviate that – but it is not a fix!
A fix would be to improve your posture and the ergonomics of your surroundings.
There is nothing like a soothing massage from a professional masseuse in a relaxing environment. There is just something about that human touch and being completely relaxed.
Personally, I am a massage junkie and have spent a decent amount of money on massages. Luckily for me, where I currently live the price for a massage is not that high compared to other places.
But even with “cheaper” massages it quickly adds up, and that is why you might want to consider using technology as a substitute (or part substitute).
Recently, a certain kind of electronic massage device has become very popular, and many athletes have said that they help speed up recovery. These devices look something like a mini jackhammer or a repurposed jigsaw, and they essentially work by hammering down on your muscle tissue with a good amount of force at very high speed – a.k.a. percussion massage.
I have used them myself and honestly, they feel awesome. In addition, it does “feel” like this kind of massage help with muscle recovery. I would say that they at least make you more enthusiastic about working the muscles again because they feel better.
Because of recent popularity, there are a bunch of these products on the market. In my opinion, the top 3 best percussion massagers on the market are currently:
All three are very popular and the customer feedback is overwhelmingly positive. They have similar functionality and design but vary a little bit in price, look, and power.
Generally, massage is great after hitting the gym and not the other way around. If you prefer to get a relaxing massage prior to a special event, schedule it a few days before. You definitely do not want to get a deep massage just before the gym or competition.
On another note, I would suggest not eating a big meal before getting a massage. A full stomach can make you feel uncomfortable while lying down flat in bed. During the massage try to use deep breaths also if it gets uncomfortable. Finally, massage should not be too frequent.
How massage works and its extent is definitely not a solved problem yet. It will be interesting to see what future research will be able to tell us.
However, you should not let the lack of conclusive scientific evidence hold you back!
Gym-goers, sports enthusiasts and pro-athletes around the world are all talking about how massage is helping them out.
If you want to take your recovery to the next level, you might want to consider investing in some of these new massage devices.
Marcus is the owner of the site Strengthery where he likes to write mostly about weight training, weight loss, and other health-related topics. He prefers a balancing approach to health and fitness where the amount of effort needs a corresponding gain in order to be worth it. He is also a massage junkie.