A study at McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario, indicates that massage helps reduce inflammation and improve recovery of damaged muscle.

The study

Exhausted After ExerciseEleven young men were asked to cycle to the point of exhaustion (where they couldn’t continue), which was established as 70-minutes of vigorous exercise after having had their physical ability assessed two weeks previously. A massage therapist applied oil lightly to both quadriceps of each participant, then massaged only one quadricep on each individual for 10 minutes. A biopsy was taken of both quadriceps on each participant immediately after and 2.5 hours later.

The outcome

The tissue from the massaged leg showed fewer cytokines, which are a factor in inflammation. The massaged tissue also showed an increase in mitochondrial biogenesis, or muscle repair. Additionally, there didn’t appear to be any difference between the massaged and non-massaged tissue in levels of metabolites such as lactic acid and glycogen.  To quote from the abstract ‘In summary, when administered to skeletal muscle that has been acutely damaged through exercise, massage therapy appears to be clinically beneficial by reducing inflammation and promoting mitochondrial biogenesis.’ (from Science Translational Medicine abstract, see links below).


Again we have an objective measure, e.g., biopsy, and an examination of what is actually happening at a cellular level in the muscle tissue. The main limitation is sample size, having only eleven participants. A big plus is that the researchers were able to compare tissue from the same person, which limits the possibility of a ‘false positive’, i.e. that the improvements in tissue on the massaged tissue were not from the massage but rather a result of the person’s physiological aptitude for healing themselves.

My favourite quotes about this study

“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,” said Crane. “We have shown the muscle senses that it is being stretched and this appears to reduce the cells’ inflammatory response,” he said. “As a consequence, massage may be beneficial for recovery from injury.” (from the University Press Release)

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.” (from the University Press Release)

“This is important research, because it is the first to show that massage can reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines which may be involved in pain,” said Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School. She was not involved in the study. “We have known from many studies that pain can be reduced by massage based on self-report, but this is the first demonstration that the pain-related pro-inflammatory cytokines can be reduced.” (from the New York Times article listed below).

Links on this study:

Press release from McMasters University: Massage is promising for muscle recovery: McMaster researchers find 10 minutes reduces inflammation

Abstract from study published in Science Translational Medicine

New York Times article summarising study: How Massage Heals Sore Muscles

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