The benefits of massage on muscle pain

The benefit of massage therapy for muscle repair and pain reduction.

Researchers have discovered the surprising benefits of massage and what happens to your muscles when you have a massage. They investigated the effect that massage can have on muscle pain such as low back pain, neck pain or pulled muscles. What they found was that massage may suppress inflammation and enhance cell recovery.

Chronic neck pain relief


A study was undertaken in which researchers examined the cellular effect of massage on muscular repair. The found eleven volunteers who were each prepared to have one of their legs biopsied, that is, a tiny piece of muscle removed for microscopic examination. This was done before they undertook any exercise and was the ‘control’ for the cellular health of each individual. On another visit, the volunteers exercised for over an hour on a bicycle, up to the point of exhaustion. The researchers then massaged just one thigh of each of the volunteers for ten minutes, not doing anything to the other. Immediately after the massage they biopsied both legs, and then after a further 2 ½ hours of rest, they did a third biopsy.


With vigourus exercise you get tiny tears in muscle fibres, leading to an immune reaction, seen as inflammation, which leads to repair of the injured cells. The researchers compared the effect of massage on these biochemical functions to determine if there was a different response. What they found was that massage reduced the production of cytokines, important in the production of inflammation. It also stimulates the mitochondria, which you may recall from school science lessons are the production cells which convert glucose into energy – which is essential for cell function and repair. It is likely that for chronic pain sufferers with upper back and neck pain or low back pain, even general back pain, massage will do the same thing, stimulate the healing process. Not only that but the physical compression of muscles by the massage process will also remove toxins from the muscle cells, which may have built up as a result of long term suffering, such as in individuals with Fibromyalgia. This alone will reduce the level of discomfort an individual feels and is one of the long term benefits of massage.

Dr Tarnopolsky, a professor of paediatrics and medicine at McMaster University in Ontario says that massage has a different effect from Nsaids (Non-steroidal anitinflammatories) and other such pharmacuticals, which reduce inflammation and pain, but actually retard the healing process. Massage can supress inflammation and enhance cell recovery whereas theoretically there may be a maladaptive response if you are constantly using pharma medication.


This study is the first to show that massage can ‘reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines which may be involved in pain’, said Tiffany Field of the University of Miami Medical School.

As well as the biochemical effects of massage there is also the benefit of interpersonal touch which mediates the release of oxytocin and endogenous opiods which can result in reduced reactivity to stressors and improved effect. (Ellingsen DM, et al. The Neurobiology Shaping Affective Touch: Expectation, Motivation, and Meaning in the Multisensory Context. Front Psychol. 2016 Jan 6;6:1986.

And of course input from somatosensory receptors can inhibit ascending nociceptive processing and activate descending inhibitory mechanisms. (Bialosky JE, et al. Unraveling the Mechanisms of Manual Therapy: Modeling an Approach. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2018 Jan;48(1):8-18. This means that neurological function is altered by human touch; massage results in more messages being sent to the brain so pain messages don’t get through. These are just some of the benefits of massage.

Massage may be a better form of treatment for muscle tenderness post exercise than popping a pill. And it’s safe too. According to the New England Journal of Medicine in a 1999, study Nsaids kill 16,500 people in the USA each year.

The overwhelming evidence shows that the benefits of massage are enormous in inflammation reduction, neural moderation, cellular change, emotional improvement and general pain reduction. It may also relieve chronic pain. And of course massage is safe.

Massage Therapy Attenuates Inflammatory Signaling After Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage. (Justin D. Crane1, et al. Science Translational Medicine  01 Feb 2012: Vol. 4, Issue 119, pp. 119ra13
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3002882