Approximately 47.5 million people in the US have a massage in a given year, with some of the most important reasons being pain relief, relaxation, and recovery from sports injuries. If you are an athlete who doesn’t want to let pain, tightness, and injury stop you from achieving your goals, you may wonder if the benefits of massage go beyond the “feel good factor.” A recent study by researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard has shown that massage does, indeed, help muscles heal faster. It also makes them stronger.
The Link between Mechanical Stimulation and Immune Function
The study found that applying consistent, compressive force (massage) to severely injured muscle tissue clears this tissue of immune cells and inflammatory cytokines (a type of signaling molecule that promotes inflammation). It does so by literally “squeezing” these cells out. In this sense, massage enhances the process of muscle fiber regeneration. The result is muscles with a larger fiber size and greater strength recovery. The researchers reported a very clear link between mechanical stimulation and improved immune function. They concluded that this had important implications, not only for injured muscles, but also for the regeneration of a wide array of tissues, including tendons, bones, skin, and hair. It can also potentially be used in patients with diseases that cannot withstand medication.
What Type of Massage is Ideal for Muscle Healing?
In the study, researchers used a robotic “massage gun” to apply precise pressure to injured areas. However, identical mechanical pressure can be received manually. Those who opt for massage therapy at a medical spa should opt for a deep tissue massage, comprising firm pressure and slow strokes. This type of massage reaches the deepest parts of the muscles, tendons, and fascia, promoting recovery and soothing pain and tightness. You can enjoy a soothing, Swedish-style massage as a complement for stress relief and relaxation. However, when recovery from an injury is your main priority, concentrate on deep tissue massage until pain and inflammation is reduced.
Massage Promotes the Growth of New Mitochondria Following Exercise
Athletes who are prone to injury should consider massage as a means of injury prevention as well. Research by the Buck Institute for Research on Aging has shown that massage not only reduces inflammation but also promotes the growth of new mitochondria in skeletal muscle. The mitochondria are like the “batteries” of cells in that they are responsible for energy production. By promoting the biogenesis of mitochondria, massage has a similar effect to anti-inflammatory drugs in that it battles pain and inflammation.
Lab studies have shown that the benefits of massage go beyond pain relief. They extend to a reduction of inflammation and the growth of stronger muscles. Massage also promotes the growth of new mitochondria in skeletal muscle, having a similar effect on pain to that of anti-inflammatory medication.