New research finds that even a 10-minute massage soothes more than just the soul.
A dimly lit room. Calming, muted music. Sixty minutes of pure "me time" while stress melts away. There's no question that a massage is the ultimate good-for-you indulgence; but according to a new study, attacking those knots may pay off even more than researchers initially thought.
The tension-relieving benefits of massage therapy are well-documented, but the new findings suggest that a mere 10-minute massage can also help reduce inflammation in muscles, an underlying factor in chronic diseases like arthritis. The research, which appeared in the journal Science Translational Medicine, showed that when muscles are stretched they receive a signal to build more mitochondria, which are vital for healing — making massages potentially helpful for injury recovery.
After assessing the fitness level of 11 men in their twenties, the study’s researchers at McManus University asked each participant to cycle to the point of exhaustion (more than 70 minutes). The subjects were then allowed to rest while a massage therapist performed a 10-minute massage on one leg. While the massage didn’t help clear lactic acid from the tired muscles — a widely spread exercise myth — noticeably reduced inflammation was observed in the massaged leg.
Why? "Anytime we stimulate the nerves we send messages to the brain about the area," explains Equinox trainer and master therapist Susan Stanley, RKC, FMS, LMT, "the brain then responds in a variety of ways, including nervous and chemical."
She adds that massage techniques have an effect on more than just muscle. "In fact," says Stanley, "fascia, a layer of fibrous tissue that surrounds muscles, is probably the most affected tissue and it contains far more nervous tissue than muscle."
The almost-immediate effects of massage found in the study don't surprise Stanley. "The inflammation process begins at the moment of insult to the tissue, so the moment that tissue is given a different stimulus, the brain can change its response instantaneously, too," she says. That said, she underscores that the study was conducted on a small, specialized group.
A typical relaxation massage triggers the parasympathetic nervous system — or relax response — in the body, which stimulates healing and immunity. Lymphatic Drainage massage, an example of very light work, is designed specifically to address inflammation and edema (potentially damaging fluid accumulation), and stimulate the lymph system, which is the body’s mechanism to rid the body of toxins and waste.
Soul-soothing properties aside, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the body-benefits of massage therapy are not to be taken lightly. Something to remember the next time you're debating whether or not to hit the table.