One popular method to aid recovery is massage, which Americans alone spent $11.7 billion on in 2007. But are we spending our money wisely? Although massage has existed for centuries, it is only very recently that scientists have looked into how, and if, massage works. To explain how it works it helps to first understand how a muscle heals after injury.
Injured muscle heals via four interrelated phases:
- Degeneration phase
- Inflammation phase
- Regeneration phase
- Fibrosis phase.
It is the inflammation phase that will be the focus of this article. After the initial reaction to clear debris from the injury site (degeneration phase), the body sends a cascade of inflammatory cells to the location to initiate and carry out the repair.
However, the same cells that repair the damage also irritate the surrounding nerves; and as the body tends to overcompensate by flooding the area with these cells, it leads us to feel pain. If there was a method by which we could curb the release of these excessive cells then that should lead to a quicker recovery - massage could be this method.
Studies performed in the last few years have shown that a possible mechanism for how massage works is mechanotransduction. Mechanotransduction is the process that allows mechanical stimulation (massage) to create a chemical signal in the muscle. In this case, that signal is to slow the production of these inflammatory cells, hence, the fewer there are to cause pain.
A recent study has shown exactly this. Eleven young men exercised very hard on a bike before having only one leg massaged. The muscles were subsequently analysed and the leg that was massaged was found to have significantly fewer inflammatory cells. This reduction in the number of inflammatory cells allowed the massaged leg to return to full power significantly quicker. The timing of the massage also makes a difference - the sooner it is applied, the more effective it is.
According to these recent studies it appears massage is both a safe and effective treatment after an intense exercise session. Although massage is not currently recommended immediately following a muscle tear, these same studies suggest that with further understanding, this practice may become common place. Stay tuned.
So it looks as though massage is helpful in the early stages of muscle healing. Next time I will explore how we can help the muscle out during the regeneration phase of healing.
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