A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that massage therapy improved blood-flow in subjects and also helped to reduce muscle soreness after exercise.
It seems that massage can also benefit people who haven’t exercised, too, as vascular function was improved in subjects who received a massage but undertook no extra physical activity.
The claims seem to be true
Proponents of massage have long hailed its benefits, claiming that it improves circulation and helps to reduce post-exercise aches and pains. Massage is also increasingly used alongside conventional medicine for a variety of illnesses and ailments, even cancer, as it can improve mood, appetite and recovery times after surgery.
A lot of the evidence for the efficacy of massage has been anecdotal, but this 2014 study not only shows how it helps after exercise, but also suggests that it has its own intrinsic benefits.
The study itself
Participants in the study, who were usually fairly sedentary, were asked to exercise their legs with a standard leg-press machine until they were sore. Half of the subjects then received a Swedish massage and half didn’t. All of the subjects rated their muscle soreness from 1 to 10.
While all of the exercisers reported muscle soreness straight after the exercise, the exercise-then-massage half said they had no soreness 90 minutes after the massage. The exercise-only group still had soreness 24 hours later.
Exercise-induced muscle micro-injuries have been shown to reduce blood-flow. This Chicago study measured brachial artery flow mediated dilation (FMD) in both groups several times after the exercise session. This measurement is taken in the upper arm and is a reliable metric for overall vascular health. The FMD was measured by ultrasound at 90 minutes, 24, 48 and 72 hours after the exercise.
The exercise-then-massage group showed improved blood-flow at each measurement, with the improvement only falling away after 72 hours. The exercise-only group saw their blood-flow start to reduce after 90 minutes; it was back to normal levels at 72 hours.
As the changes in blood-flow were both in a different part of the body and were sustained for three days, it seems that this improvement isn’t just a localised response but a systemic one.
Even more encouraging were the results from a massage-only control group. This group showed almost identical improvements in circulation as the exercise-then-massage group, with increased blood-flow sustained for up to three days. This suggests that massage itself is beneficial to the vascular system, which is good news for people with mobility problems or poor vascular function.
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