Nothing feels better than a hard-earned massage to tame tension and curb nagging pain—but you might be surprised at just how much relief that rubdown can give your overworked muscles. Believe it or not, research shows that you could get serious cellular support against underlying inflammation within mere minutes, just by turning your aching b/dy over to professional hands.

Ten Minutes Is All It Takes

As part of a new study published in February 2012, researchers at McMaster University decided to take a closer look at exactly how massage works to relieve pain and restore damaged muscles. To do this, they assessed the exercise capacity of 11 men in their early 20s, after which each subject exercised to exhaustion on a bicycle for a total workout time of over 70 minutes.

A therapist then applied massage oil to both of each of the subjects’ legs during a brief, 10-minute rest period,kperforming a massage on one thigh muscle while leaving the other leg untreated as a control. Researchers took muscle biopsies from the subjects’ quadriceps before the exercise, immediately following this 10-minute massage, and then again two-and-a-half hours later.

The results of this laboratory analysis? In just 10 short minutes, therapeutic massage helped to reverse over an hour’s worth of exercise-induced muscle damage, one cell at a time.{{{0}}}

Soothe Inflammation and Power Up Your Cells

While the value of massage as a tension-busting, pain-relieving therapy is well established, this study is the first of its kind to explore the biochemical mechanisms behind massage’s time-tested benefits. And, as it turns out, stretching and manipulation signals more than one mode of healing within your muscles’ cellular infrastructure.

The McMaster researchers found that massage was able to stifle rises in NFkappaB, TNF-alpha and interleukin-6 (IL-6)—three cell-signaling factors that play a major role in the inflammatory cascade that follows exercise-induced muscle trauma. What’s more, the biopsies also showed an increase in mitochondrial biogenesis signaling—suggesting that massage sends messages to the body to create more mitochondria, the structures that serve as cellular power hubs.1-2

The end result of this chemical activity is a significant reduction in muscular inflammation, paired with less cellular stress and revitalized cellular energy, delivering pain relief via the same biochemical processes you’ll see with many pain medications. Given this ability, the study authors offer massage as one promising route to speedier injury recovery—not to mention its potential against other chronic diseases linked to muscular inflammation, such as arthritis and muscular dystrophy.

Either way, it looks like a little hands-on medicine is a win-win strategy where your sore, tired muscles are concerned—and this study serves up some compelling clinical evidence to prove it.


1. ScienceDaily. Accessed May 2, 2012.

2. J D Crane, et al. Science Translational Medicine. 2012;4(119):119ra13.

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