Research shows benefits of massage therapy

Videography by S K Vemmer

A new study by UIC researchers provides validation for something spa patrons always knew was true: massage therapy is good for you, improving general blood flow and easing muscle soreness after exercise.

The study, reported online in advance of print in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, also showed that massage improved vascular function in people who had not exercised.

“Our study validates the value of massage in exercise and injury, which has been previously recognized but based on minimal data,” said Nina Cherie Franklin, postdoctoral fellow in physical therapy and first author of the study.

“It also suggests the value of massage outside of the context of exercise.”

Improved circulation and relief of muscle soreness are common claims for massage, but no studies had substantiated these claims, even though massage therapy is increasingly used with traditional medical treatments, said Shane Phillips, associate professor of physical therapy and principal investigator on the study.

The researchers wanted to see if massage would improve systemic circulation and reduce muscle soreness after exercise.

Healthy sedentary adults exercised their legs until they were sore, using a standard leg press machine. After exercise, half the participants received leg massages, using conventional Swedish massage techniques. Participants rated their muscle soreness on a scale from 1 to 10.

As expected, both exercise groups felt soreness immediately after exercise. The exercise-and-massage group reported no continuing soreness 90 minutes after massage therapy. The exercise-only group reported lasting soreness 24 hours after exercise.

Exercise-induced muscle injury has been shown to reduce blood flow. In this study, brachial artery flow mediated dilation — a standard measure of general vascular health, measured in the upper arm — was taken by ultrasound at 90 minutes, then 24, 48 and 72 hours after exercise.

For the exercise-and massage-group, researchers found improved blood flow every time it was measured, tapering off after 72 hours. As expected, the exercise-only group showed reduced blood flow after 90 minutes, 24 hours and 48 hours, returning to normal levels at 72 hours.

“We believe that massage is really changing physiology in a positive way,” said Franklin. “This is not just blood flow speeds — this is actually a vascular response.”

Because vascular function was changed at a distance from both the site of injury and the massage, the finding suggests a “systemic rather than just a local response,” she said.

“The big surprise was the massage-only control group, who showed virtually identical levels of improvement in circulation as the exercise and massage group,” said Phillips.

“The circulatory response was sustained for a number of days, which suggests that massage may be protective,” he said.

For people with limited mobility or those with impaired vascular function, further research may show that regular massage offers significant benefits, the two agreed.

Mohamed Ali, Austin T. Robinson and Edita Norkeviciute of UIC are co-authors on the study.

The work was supported by the Massage Therapy Foundation, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and UIC’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science.

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