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Massage: not all it's cracked up to be?

Comments (14)
By Peter Hadzipetros

Just when you think you're all up to date on the latest science regarding getting into shape and keeping your body in a state where you can keep on getting fitter, some researcher comes along and blows your accepted truth out of the water.

We were all led to believe that our bodies need eight glasses of water a day to stay healthy. Turned out that not only is that a myth, but most normal people don't need to take in lots of water unless they live in hot, dry climates or are high performance athletes.

Now they're taking aim at massage.

If you do exercise a lot – whether you run marathons, play soccer or spend a bunch of time in the gym – there's a good chance you've sought out the services of a registered massage therapist. You were probably told that getting a massage after hard exercise will increase blood flow to your aching muscles and flush out waste products like lactic acid, the stuff the experts say causes that burning sensation in your muscles.

If you've ever suffered an exercise injury and seen a physiotherapist or a sports therapist, you've probably been told that. Go to the website of the Canadian Sport Massage Therapists Association and they'll tell you the same thing.

Well, a couple of researchers at Queen's University in Kingston beg to differ.

Kinesiology and Health Studies professor Michael Tschakovsky and Vicky Wiltshire, a student working towards her masters degree in kinesiology, say they decided to look at this topic because there's no scientific evidence backing up that claim. Their findings will be presented at the annual American College of Sports Medicine conference in Seattle, Wash., later this month.

Tschakovsky and Wiltshire had 12 healthy undergraduate male students do isometric handgrip exercises for two minutes. They measured forearm blood flow and lactic acid buildup every 30 seconds for 10 minutes immediately after the exercise period. The measurements were taken during rest, massage and "active recovery" (easy exercise).

They found that during massage, not only was there was no increase in blood flow or in flushing of waste materials from the muscles, there was actually a decrease in blood flow which hindered the removal of waste from the muscles.

So massage isn't helpful?

"What we're saying with this research …it's not that massage isn't good," Tschakovsky told me. "It's just that the common perception that it increases blood flow and helps in the removal of lactic acid isn't correct."

A lot of runners I know – including me – were convinced the theory was correct. My routine was to book a massage a few days before a marathon – made me feel like a racehorse raring to go - and a few days after, which I thought helped those still sore muscles feel better so I could get back out there and start getting ready for my next race sooner.

Tschakovsky says he's done the same thing – gone for a massage after soccer tournaments.

"Certainly it makes me feel better and it makes me feel as if my muscles are going to work better. It's just that it's not because of these claimed reasons."

Tschakovsky says if massage does improve performance and help you recover more quickly, science has yet to prove how it works. On the other hand, science has not proven that massage hinders performance and recovery.

The bottom line?

"It feels good, that's the truth of it. A lot of performance is psychological-based so if you feel better, if you feel you're in a better situation to do something, it probably has the ability to affect performance."

Oh and that lactic acid stuff? Turns out it's been getting a bad rap may be a myth too.

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Comments (14)

Margaret

Calgary

Margaret in Boston; very good point, it is your liver and kidneys that "cleanse" (hate that word, it's SO New Age) your body; not water. Water helps of course, because it hydrates the whole body, but it's not the "cleanser".

I do find that a drink of cold water wakes me up, and I think that lack of hydration can make you less alert. It's good for your skin and all your organs to get enough water. But - we know very well the truth of "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink"; because we have 3 of them. You cannot force a horse to drink more than he thinks is necessary, or more than he needs, and it's not the horse equivalent of 8 glasses a day.

The massage/lactic acid theories have made their way to the horse world, and I have serious doubts about their validity. Makes a lot of money for the massage therapists though. $100+ an hour, while the horse stands there being agreeable. What does work for these 4 legged athletes is conditioning. Same for humans. Conditioning, plus sane training, plus good nutrition. Massage is pleasant, but not essential at all.

Posted August 19, 2009 09:05 AM

Margaret

Calgary

Chiropractic manipulation is not just useless, it is harmful. I've got arthritis in my neck caused by a chiropractor, who in the short term gave me 'wry neck' that had me in a brace and on painkillers for 2 weeks. In the long term - I now have arthritis, and a pinched nerve caused by another chiro I went to against doctors' warnings; but that was the last time.

A chiro repeatedly cracked my husband's neck, without realizing that he had ankylosing spondilitis, and that's the reason why his neck fused, instead of following the usual course of the disease which is to fuse at the bottom first. Ignorant practitioner - no idea what it was.

Massage - I haven't found that it has any particular benefits, aside from feeling good, and I suppose that's a benefit.

Posted August 19, 2009 08:58 AM

johnny longsleeves

I remember my teacher in grade 11 Biology telling the class:

The solution to Polution is dilution.

Drink up!

Posted June 23, 2009 10:36 AM

John

Hmmm if I Did Everything I Was Meant To Do And Everything I Wasn't Meant To I Would Have Had A Very Boring Life Or Would Have Been Dead A Long Time Ago

Posted May 29, 2009 07:23 PM

Moe Stooge

edmonton

Oh yes, lets take "aim" at massage, don't forget that Chiropractic manipulation is also "useless" as well.

Lets hype out a newsworthy story....

what a crock of s**t

Posted May 29, 2009 04:46 PM

Earl

I am so glad we have universities to tell us what helps me and what doesn't help me. I don't think I would breathe if there wasn't a university study telling me that it is beneficial.

Posted May 28, 2009 07:04 PM

Toxic?

Water intake is important, but 8 glasses a day are not necessary for the body to do its work clearing "toxins" (the body's waste products)via the liver and kidneys. Neither is any kind of massage necessary for this. It's cute that some people are taught, without evidence), that we are walking toxic dumps that need exessive water intake to clear "toxins". And, even without that evidence, they then bash medical doctors for not thinking the same even though their in-depth knowledge of the human body's systems gives them another impression of how much water per day it needs to function properly and clear waste products. Just ask these others (who claim we are toxin-ridden) just what toxins they are referring to. Even water is toxic to the body if too much is drunk and a person is unable to eliminate it within a reasonable amount of time. Anything is "toxic" if it is ingested in too high of a dosage-even something like calcium (can cause kidney stones if intake is too high). Something like vitamin C, though, gets eliminated in our urine without causing too much of a problem, so it's hard to overdose on it. It seems a dose of common sense is needed to go along with some of the advice given in these comments.

Posted May 20, 2009 11:21 AM

Dr.Michael Tschakovsky

I read with interest the comments by both Lindsay and Chad. Lindsay: 1. You see red after the white not because blood flow has increased, but because blood volume has returned to the skin where it had been pushed out by the finger compression. The white skin is your clue that compression actually stops blood flow (skin is white no blood volume...i.e. no blood flow). This is what the massage stroke is doing…impeding blood flow. This was the reason the forearm blood flow was reduced with massage 2. As for experienced MT knowing this occurs in muscle that is dysfunctional… you need to look closely at the scientific literature (i.e. cases where blood flow is actually being measured). None of these show an increase in blood flow with massage. Chad: I appreciate your thoughtful criticisms. Here is my response: 1. Your experience of “lactic acid symptoms” being alleviated by massage are the same as mine when I play a soccer tournament. However, I caution you in assuming that alleviation of discomfort is due to washing out of lactic acid. Our study measured this washout and it was 25% less with massage. 2. Your questions about what kind of massage and why not in a larger muscle group are excellent and the right ones to ask. The massage was performed by a registered massage therapist performing post event massage. as for larger muscles, the mechanical compression of muscle by a massage stroke is the same regardless of the muscle (i.e. compression squeezes blood vessels shut and therefore blood cannot flow through them, and this can easily be achieved in deep muscles)...so the impairment to blood flow of massage will be the same regardless of which muscles are massaged. You are right in saying that studies need to be put into the proper context. For both Lindsay and Chad: The context here is that, while massage may have numerous benefits, they are NOT due to increasing blood flow to muscle and helping wash out metabolites post exercise.

Posted May 14, 2009 05:25 PM

jennifer

Yes, actually water does play in integral role in removing toxins from the body by moving them through urination and bowel movements, as well as allowing your body to sweat toxins through your skin. Without adequate water intake, your ograns cannot complete these functions effectively, thus why most of us are highly toxic: something your MD won't be telling you. Educate yourself, assuming can kill you.

Posted May 13, 2009 02:18 PM

Lindsay

Manitoba

Massage improves recovery by seperating muscle fibers that are adhered and contracted after working out.
A body may become the type of sore that you feel after working out just from having a massage and not doing any physical activity due to the re-arranging of the muscle tone.
As for improving blood flow - press your thumb into your forearm for a few seconds then let go. The tissue becomes white and then turns red from the blood returning to the surface. An experienced MT know that this especially occurs in muscle tissue that is dysfunctional. Therefore I don't understand any argument that says this is not true.

Posted May 12, 2009 12:51 PM

martin

toronto

thats for letting me know that. Now I wont be all psyched out after getting a massage now I will have to find something else to put my mind in gear. ignorance is bliss u know :)

Posted May 12, 2009 11:20 AM

Chad

Victoria

Perhaps they should tell that to the Tour de France riders who all get massages after each gruelling 250 km stage to aid in recovery for the next day. Of course, there's the hyperbolic tents, etc. If the apparent recovery isn't from what is claimed, then what is it?

I know from personal experience as a cyclist that massage does help alleviate the symptoms of lactic acid in the legs. It may not remove it totally, but it certainly seems to accelerate recovery.

My question is what type of massage are they talking about and why didn't they perform these tests on larger muscle groups like legs. where the blood flow is much deeper than arms. I think like most medical stories, these results need to be put into proper context.

Posted May 12, 2009 06:51 AM

Margaret in Boston

Boston

Water does not cleanse the body of toxins. Your kidneys and liver do.

Posted May 11, 2009 02:11 PM

Jennifer Gouweloos

I find this and the water article to be slighly dangerous. Responsible journalism comes into question when both of these pieces could be misconstrued by the average person as meaning both daily water intake and massage therapy aren't as important as once thought. Water in its pure form cleanses the body of toxins, the article looked at it from one perspective; disclaimers are important in this case. Wording is important and using incomplete grad research as the only source of information is something I know to question, but many perhaps non-university educated readers would not think to do. The media is responsible for so much fear and miseducation: our economic state and this possible H1N1 pandemic are perfect examples.

Posted May 11, 2009 01:49 PM

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About the Author

Peter HadzipetrosPeter Hadzipetros is a producer for the Consumer and Health sites of CBC News Online. Until he got off the couch and got into long distance running a few years ago, he was a net importer of calories.

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