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Get a Professional Massage for Sore Muscles
What the Study Showed

A small but well-designed 2003 study among college students found that professional massage significantly lessened the intensity of muscle soreness following strenuous exercise. The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, contrasted the benefits of a professionally conducted massage--namely, classic Swedish massage done by a skilled masseuse--to that of a "fake" or "sham" massage.

A second hypothesis---that an injured muscle would function better after a professional massage--did not turn out to be true.

How It Was Done

Investigators randomly assigned 18 students at a New York college into two groups. Everyone underwent intense exercise designed to induce muscle damage. During the session, the students did six sets of eight contractions of the right hamstring. And they were specifically asked to lift the heaviest weight they could so that muscle damage would occur.

Two hours after the exercise, the treatment group received a classic Swedish massage, while the control group got a "sham" massage. Both groups were told that the massage might lessen inflammation.

Classic Swedish massage techniques (recommended by most physical therapists) that were used included five minutes of stroking (effleurage), one minute of percussion (tapotement), 12 minutes of kneading the muscle, and another two minutes of stroking. The sham massage consisted of a simple (placebo) lotion applied to the legs by a masseuse, who then instructed the participants to rest and listen to 20 minutes of a soothing audiotape, which was also heard by the treatment group.

At selected times over the course of the next 46 hours, the investigators measured physiological and psychological variables to determine what (if any) benefit the different massage treatments may have had. Among the variables measured were psychological mood, range of motion in the leg, peak torque (a measure of strength), inflammation, and various qualities regarding muscle soreness, such as its intensity and the level of unpleasantness it produced.

Forty-eight hours after the exercise, the students who got the "real" massage rated the intensity of their soreness as significantly less than did those who received the sham treatment.

Why It's Important

Over the years, numerous strategies--including ultrasound treatments, painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, and stretching regimens--have been proposed to ease the muscle soreness that often follows vigorous exercise. But none have ever completely eliminated the tender, aching, and stiff sensation in skeletal muscles typically felt most intensely 24 to 48 hours after exercise--a condition researchers call delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS.

The present study helps to confirm that quality professional massage is a good treatment choice for sore muscles. It's still unclear, however, exactly how this therapy lessened the intensity of the pain.

The authors propose several possible reasons for the results. Following massage, muscle soreness may have diminished because the subjects enjoyed more restful sleep. Or perhaps the treatment activated pressure receptors instead of pain receptors. Participants may have also been flooded with feel-good and pain-abating hormones.

Source: Hilbert JE, Sforzo GA, Swensen T. The effects of massage on delayed onset muscle soreness. Br J Sports Med. 2003;37(1):72-75.

Date Published: 06/30/2003
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