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Massage Really Does Do a Body Good

Improved circulation and relief of muscle soreness are common claims made for massage therapy but no studies had ever been done to substantiate these assertions even though massage therapy is increasingly used as an adjunct to traditional medical interventions. Now researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago have shown that massage therapy not only improves general blood flow and alleviates muscle soreness after exercise but also helps people who have not worked out such as those who are bedridden.

The study was reported online in advance of print in April 2014 in Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. A release from the university quotes Shane Phillips, UIC associate professor of physical therapy and principal investigator, as saying, “The big surprise was the massage-only control group, who showed virtually identical levels of improvement in circulation as the exercise and massage group.”

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

The researchers had set out to see if massage would improve systemic circulation and reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Healthy sedentary adults were asked to exercise their legs to the point of soreness using a standard leg press machine. Half of the exercisers received leg massages using conventional Swedish massage techniques after the exercise. Participants rated their muscle soreness on a scale from 1 to 10.

As expected, both exercise groups experienced 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 (FMD) — a standard metric of general vascular health, measured in the upper arm — was taken by ultrasound at 90 minutes, 24, 48 and 72 hours after exercise.

For the exercise-and massage-group, FMD indicated improved blood flow at all time points, with improvement tapering off after 72 hours. As expected, the exercise-only group showed reduced blood flow after 90 minutes and 24 and 48 hours, with a return 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.

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