Sports massage: sore muscles

Massage and delayed onset muscle soreness

Therapeutic massage after heavy exercise may relieve the symptoms of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) but does nothing for muscle strength or function, according to two quite separate new studies.

 In one investigation, led by Australian and Japanese researchers, a group of eight healthy active young men were treated to a 30-minute therapeutic massage on one limb two hours after a 40-minute downhill treadmill walk, loaded with 10% of their body weight via a waist strap.

Muscle soreness, tenderness, isometric strength, isokinetic strength and single leg vertical jump height were measured for both limbs on two occasions before the walk and at 1, 24, 72 and 120 house afterwards. The results for the massaged and non-massaged limbs were then compared.

These comparisons showed that, while massage was effective in reducing both soreness and tenderness, it had no beneficial effects on muscular strength or function. Indeed the massaged limbs tended to show more pronounced deficits in performance.

‘These findings have significant implications for both clinical and sporting settings,’ conclude the researchers. ‘Where pain management for delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a higher priority than maintaining strength and function over the short term, eg in a clinical setting, massage could be considered an effective intervention. However, in a sporting setting, where optimal performance is paramount, therapeutic massage should be cautioned.’

In the second study, carried out in New York, 18 young male and female volunteers were randomly assigned to either a massage or control group. Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) was induced with six sets of eight maximal eccentric contractions of the right hamstring, which were followed two hours later by 20 minutes of either real or sham massage (control).

 The genuine article consisted of classical Swedish techniques. The control treatment consisted of a placebo lotion, applied to the subjects’ legs by the masseuse, who then instructed them to rest for 20 minutes while listening to the same audiotape played to the massage group. Subjects in both groups were told their treatment might reduce inflammation.

Peak muscle torque and mood were assessed at 2, 6, 24 and 48 hours post-exercise, while range of motion and unpleasantness of soreness were assessed at 6, 24 and 48 hours. Blood neutrophil count, a measure of inflammation, was assessed at 6 and 24 hours.

Analysis of the results showed no significant differences between the massage and control groups in terms of peak torque, range of motion, neutrophil count, unpleasantness of soreness and mood. However, the intensity of soreness was significantly lower in the massage group at 48 hours post-exercise.

Possible explanations for this latter finding put forward by the researchers include improved sleep patterns, boosted endorphin and serotonim levels and decreased levels of stress hormones following treatment. Additionally, massage may activate pressure instead of pain receptors, thereby lowering soreness intensity. A key conclusion is that the effects of massage may be more psychological than physical.

Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 5(4):297-306

Br J Sports Med 2003;37:72-75

Isabel Walker

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