The Biology of Massage: Decreasing Muscle Pain After Exercise

Athletes have long looked to chiropractors and massage therapists for relief of sore muscles after exercise and training. Now scientists are beginning to understand why massage is so effective in relieving muscle soreness.

A study published in Science Translation Medicine reveals the biological reasons that massage works. In the study, 11 healthy men performed intense exercise using a stationary bike for one hour. Then they received a massage on just one leg. Researchers took muscle biopsies of both quadriceps after the massage, and then again after two and a half hours of rest.

Intense exercise creates small tears in muscle fibers, which kick the body's immune system into gear, inflaming the muscles and often causing pain. The researchers found that massage therapy stimulated mitochondria, promoting cell regeneration. The massaged legs of participants also had reduced cytokines, which cause inflammation and pain.

The authors of the study admit that pain medication also reduces inflammation, but they point out that drugs can actually hinder the healing process by suppressing the body's natural recovery. Last year, a new study showed taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs before a workout can actually prolong muscles soreness.

More natural therapies such as massage and chiropractic, on the other hand, have anti-inflammatory benefits while also promoting the body's ability to heal itself.


Bakalar, N. How Massage Heals Sore Muscles. The New York Times February 6, 2012.

Bankhead, C. Muscle Massage Rubs Out Inflammation. February 2, 2012. Medpage Today 30996.

Crane JD, et al. Massage therapy attenuates inflammatory signaling after exercise-induced muscle damage Science Translation Medicine. February2012; 4 (19): doi 10.1126/scitranslmed.3002882.