Massage can bring relief and relaxation for both recreational and competitive runners; however, recent claims that it can reduce inflammation and soreness and form new proteins through gene expression are not that true. Proponents of such claims cite their references from a few studies that showed benefits of massage therapy to reduce inflammation and soreness. One such study was published in 2012 in Science Transitional Medicine that examined whether muscle proteins change with or without massage after a bout of intense exercise.
According to the study, massaged muscles were found to produce five differences in gene expression relating to inflammation and promoting the growth of mitochondria, which are the power plants of the cells that produce energy. Researcher Justin Crane, Ph.D., and his colleagues, who conducted the study at McMaster University, concluded that massage therapy seems to be beneficial by reducing inflammation and the number of mitochondria produced.
Canadian science writer and former registered massage therapist Paul Ingraham explained that even though the research is well-designed, there are several misinterpretations to the data. “The results of this study were actually negative: The data showed that massage has no significant effect on gene expression in muscle cells,” he wrote. Ingraham added that the sample population in the study was extremely small (11 healthy, young men), the number of changes in the cells was trivial, and the size of the differences was short-lived and not very significant.
In response to the claim about gene changes and expressions, Dr. David Gorski, M.D., Ph.D., a cancer researcher and surgeon at Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, criticized that the researchers should be looking for groups of genes — not individual genes — that turn on and off. “Single genes don’t actually mean all that much. It’s the groups of genes going up and down together as part of a pathway that truly indicate specific pathways being turned on and off,” stated Gorski.
Those five differences in gene expressions don’t impress Ingraham either. “The human genome consists of about 3.1 billion base pairs, divided into about 30,000 genes, which vary in size dramatically. The biggest known gene is about 2.5 million base pairs long — humungous!” he wrote. Only about 2 percent of the genes code for proteins, and five small changes is not that significant among tens of thousands of genes.
In fact, exercise has a much higher effect on gene expression and how much proteins the cells produce than massage therapy. Bodybuilders, sprinters, and marathoners are such living proof. A study from University of California Irvine that was published in the August 2007 issue of Journal of Applied Physiology showed that a total of “526 genes were differentially expressed” during and after 30 minutes of heavy exercise on a stationary bike. The sample size was also small (12 healthy men), but compared to the McMaster University study, the number of differences were night and day. “The take-home message from that is simple: Exercise changes cellular behavior, massage does not. That is not really any kind of a surprise,” stated Ingraham.
But is it true that massage therapy can reduce inflammation and muscle soreness for runners? Not really. A 2008 review of 17 studies from Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine showed that massage provided very little effects to reduce inflammation and delayed-onset-muscle-soreness (DOMS) after exercise. Even a detailed 2005 study that was published Journal of Athletic Training showed weak evidence that massage provide any good for muscle soreness. “Also, the effect size — a 30% reduction in pain — is just not that great, but especially if it’s temporary … and the researchers don’t say how long it lasted,” observed Ingraham. “Finally, the failure to have any effect on muscle strength is consistent with all other studies of massage for DOMS, and it means that massage is only relieving a little pain at best — not actually “fixing” or promoting recovery.”
Massage feels good and induces relaxation not because of structural changes of the fasciae or muscles, but because of how people perceive the touch from the nervous system. A 2009 study from the University of Miami School of Medicine found that moderate pressure in massage stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which triggers the “rest and digest” response. It helps the body to conserve energy and relax the mind and body. However, scientists currently still do not fully understand yet why or how massage triggers such a response.
Still, even though most claims are not entirely true, runners can still benefit from getting a professional massage. “Most of the benefits comes from the mind,” says massage therapist Rajam Roose, who practices in San Diego. “I have runners who come in who thinks that massage will help them with their injuries or help them heal faster. So they have this perception that massage really helps them prevent injuries, but they still get injured. Then I have seen runners who never had a massage in their lives, yet they have no injuries. It’s all about their perception.”
By Nick Ng
Interview with Rajam Roose