How does massage work? | BBC Science Focus Magazine


Historical artefacts show that massage has been practised for at least 5,000 years, but people have probably appreciated a nice back or foot rub for much longer than that! Many people find massage an enjoyable experience, but is it also medically beneficial?

You might have heard that massage can reduce pain and muscle soreness, relieve muscle knots, flush out toxins, boost the immune system, reduce stress, and prevent depression.

Scientists have since confirmed many of these claims, while others have been disproved. For example, research has found that massage can reduce pain intensity and relieve muscle tension, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and improve the symptoms of anxiety, fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis.

Massage can aid muscle recovery after exercise. A 2008 study found that massaged muscles had recovered 60 per cent of their strength after four days, compared to just 14 per cent for muscles that were only rested. The massaged muscles had fewer damaged fibres and signs of inflammation, which may explain why they recovered faster.

Exactly what massage does at a cellular level is not fully understood, but researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada found that post-exercise massage stimulated the production of energy-generating structures, called mitochondria, and reduced inflammatory proteins.

On the other hand, they found no evidence for one claim about massage: that it works by clearing out excess lactic acid.

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