Massage Doesn't Just Feel Good---It Changes Gene Expression and Reduces Inflammation

By Sarah Zhang
Feb 3, 2012 8:52 PMNov 20, 2019 5:27 AM


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What's the News: If you've ever been told been that a massage is good for "releasing toxins"---or to sound more scientific, "lactic acid"---from your muscles, then you've been told wrong. Turns out muscle cells do like a good massage, but it has nothing to do with lactic acid. In the first study on the cellular effects of massage post-exercise, researchers found that massage bolsters chemical signals reducing inflammation and promoting repair of muscle cells. How the Heck:

  • Strenuous exercise actually tears your muscle fibers; that's why an intense workout can leave you sore for days. (Don't worry---it's normal and it generally heals fine.) The researchers wanted to study how massage affects this muscle damage, so they made 11 healthy young men cycle to the point of exhaustion.

  • Then, finally, relief! Sort of. One leg on each man was randomly chosen for a 10-minute massage. Unfortunately more pain was then in store for these volunteers. A tissue sample was taken from the quadriceps muscle (often known simply as "quad") of each leg 10 minutes and 2.5 hours after the massage.

  • Researchers looked at the level of different mRNA, or messenger RNA, transcripts in these tissue samples. mRNA carries the information for building proteins in the cell, so the level of a particular mRNA molecule can tell you how much of its corresponding protein is being made.

  • Compared to unmassaged muscle cells, the tissue from massaged legs had different levels of two key proteins: less NFkB and more PGC-1alpha. Lowering NFkB levels reduces inflammation and increasing PGC-1alpha levels leads to the creation of more mitochondria that generate energy for cell growth, so both these massage-induced changes are good news for healing muscle cells.

What’s the Context:

  • Massage is one of the most common forms of "alternative" medicine, and it's been proven to reduce pain. Before this paper though, there was surprisingly little science on how massage actually works. And this study might finally kill the lactic acid myth that has persisted for so long.

Reference: Justin D. Crane et al. "Massage Therapy Attenuates Inflammatory Signaling After Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage." Science Translational Medicine, published 1 February 2012. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3002882

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