According to Justin Crane from McMaster University, as a non-drug therapy, massage holds the potential to help not just bone-weary athletes but those with inflammation-related chronic conditions like arthritis or muscular dystrophy.
While massage is well accepted as a therapy for relieving muscle tension and pain, the researchers delved deeper to find it also triggers biochemical sensors that can send inflammation-reducing signals to muscle cells.
In addition, massage signals muscle to build more mitochondria, the power centres of cells that play an important role in healing.
"The main thing, and what is novel about our study, is that no one has ever looked inside the muscle to see what is happening with massage, no one looked at the biochemical effects or what might be going on in the muscle itself," Crane said.
"We have shown the muscle senses that it is being stretched and this appears to reduce the cells' inflammatory response.
"As a consequence, massage may be beneficial for recovery from injury," he said.
For their study, the researchers followed 11 men in their twenties.
On their first visit, the men's exercise capacity was assessed. Two weeks later, the men cycled on a bicycle for more than 70 minutes, to a point of exhaustion when they couldn''''t cycle any more. They then rested for 10 minutes.
While resting, a massage therapist lightly applied massage oil to both legs, and then performed massage for 10 minutes on one leg using a variety of techniques commonly used in rehabilitation.
Muscle biopsies were done on both legs and repeated 2.5 hours later, after which the researchers found reduced inflammation in the massaged leg.
Crane admits being surprised that just 10 minutes of massage had such a profound effect.
"I didn't think that little bit of massage could produce that remarkable of a change, especially since the exercise was so robust. Seventy minutes of exercise compared to 10 of massage, it is clearly potent," Crane said.
The results hint that massage therapy blunts muscle pain by the same biological mechanisms as most pain medications and could be an effective alternative.
"Given that mitochondrial dysfunction is associated with muscle atrophy and other processes such as insulin resistance, any therapy that can improve mitochondrial function may be beneficial,"Mark Tarnopolsky, professor of medicine for the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, who oversaw the study, said.
The study has been published in Science Translational Medicine.