Massage Improved Blood Flow, Promoted Healing

Deep pressure massage helped improve vascular function in the sedentary as well as those who exercised

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) If you need another reason to go for that lengthy, deep-muscle massage, look no further. New research suggests massage may do more than just help you relax.

Massage also promoted circulation and healing in people with exercise-induced injuries, according to this new study. It even increased blood flow in people who had not exercised, the researchers found.

"Ask your doctor if you might benefit from massage."

Shane Phillips, PhD, a University of Illinois at Chicago associate professor of physical therapy was principal investigator of this study.

The study's participants included 36 adults, who were 18 to 40 years old. All led sedentary lives. The participants had to exercise fewer than 150 minutes per week and had not done resistance or aerobic training in the previous six months.

The adults were randomly placed in one of three groups: 15 people were in the exercise-induced muscle injury (EMI) and massage therapy group, 10 were in the EMI group without massage, and 11 were in the massage therapy group without exercise.

Those in the EMI groups did a single bout of bilateral leg press exercises with increasing weights that was completed within 30 minutes, and expected to cause muscle soreness.

Those who received massage all did so with the same masseuse. It was Swedish massage, which is deep-tissue massage, done in the lower extremities (legs) for a period of 30 minutes.

The researchers then measured blood flow through the arteries in the arms (brachial artery flow-mediated dilation, or FMD, a standard measure of general vascular health) using ultrasound — a machine that creates pictures of inside the body using high-frequency sounds waves. The blood flow was measured at 90 minutes, 24 hours, 48 hours and 72 hours in all groups.

The researchers expected that there would be blood flow impairment after participants exercised. The inner lining of the blood vessels, known as the endothelium, constricted blood flow in those who exercised. Their FMD was reduced from baseline (start of study) at 24 and 48 hours, and returned to normal at 72 hours.

Those who had exercised and received massage, as well as those who only had the massage, had an increased blood flow at each of the intervals they were measured, which tapered off after 72 hours.

Those who did not have the massage had pain, soreness, swelling, decreased range of motion and reduced muscle strength in their legs for 24 hours after they exercised. This response was the expected inflammatory response triggered by damaged muscles, the study's authors wrote.

Those who had received the massage did not complain about the soreness or other symptoms by 90 minutes after exercise.

Massage promoted dilation of the arteries and inhibited inflammation, the authors noted. Exactly how massage exerted this effect is not known.

In a press release by the University of Illinois at Chicago, Dr. Phillips stated that “the big surprise was the massage-only control group, who showed virtually identical levels of improvement in circulation as the exercise and massage group.”

Massage may have long-lasting benefits, he added. "The circulatory response was sustained for a number of days, which suggests that massage may be protective,” he said.

The authors concluded that massage protected against reduced upper extremity endothelial function following low extremity exertion.

They noted that their study had a few limitations, including that it was small and there was no true control group.

This study appeared online, prior to print, on April 17 in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

None of the authors benefited financially from the study, although the Massage Therapy Foundation did supply a research grant.

Review Date: 
April 22, 2014
Last Updated:
April 23, 2014