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Massage for injured muscles

Massage really does speed up muscle recovery from injury, according to scientists – but rest it for 3 days first.

Much of my work involves working with clients recovering from injuries, so it’s great to see more evidence to back up my own experience of this. Over the years I’ve worked with back problems, shoulder injuries, and neck issues like whiplash, ankle sprains, and muscle strains. I also help clients recovering from various surgeries. My overall impression is that massage seems to improve recovery times. Now scientists are looking more closely at the mechanisms for why this might be.

The 2021 study looked at the effects of massage-like forces on injured mouse legs, with the assistance of custom-built robotics. They also carried out in vitro research looking at the impact on muscle tissue of chemicals secreted by white blood cells.

The robot applied consistent, repeated force that simulated massage treatment to injured muscles for 14 days. The rate and quality of repair was then compared to untreated muscles in similarly injured mouse legs. The robot-treated muscles showed evidence of greater repair and strength recovery.

Inflammation and when to treat

The in vitro research on muscle fibres gave some additional insights into the impact of inflammation on injury recovery. This confirmed that inflammation is helpful to begin with, but could be damaging in the long term. Pro-inflammatory chemicals released by neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, stimulated the growth of muscle cells, to begin with, but then started to impair the production of new muscle fibres.

“While the inflammatory response is important for regeneration in the initial stages of healing, it is equally important that inflammation is quickly resolved to enable the regenerative processes to run its full course,” said co-author Stephanie McNamara.

The timing of treatment can therefore be crucial. Just as it’s recommended not to take non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen, for the first 3 days after injury, it may be wise to allow the inflammation to do its job for a few days before having a massage on an injury.

Massage and other tissue types

The study was looking at directly damaged muscle tissue, but lead author Bo Ri Seo believes it could have implications for many types of tissue: “This has promise for regenerating a wide variety of tissues including bone, tendon, hair, and skin, and can be used in patients with diseases that prevent the use of drug-based interventions.”

This adds to the evidence base for the use of massage with sprains, repetitive strain injuries, osteoporosis, and recovery from surgery, accidents and other types of injury and illness. A skilled practitioner will be able to assess the kind of treatment that will be most appropriate to each situation.

So if you pull or strain a muscle, or have any kind of injury, do book in –  but for at least the 4th day after it happens. In that time, rest, avoid NSAIDs, and get an x-ray or scan if required.