Does massage therapy decrease inflammation and stimulate mitochondrial growth? An intriguing study oversold
If there’s one form of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) that I find more tolerable than most, it’s massage therapy. The reason, of course, is that, whatever else anyone claims about massage, there’s no doubt that it feels good. Indeed, I’ve sort of come around to Kimball Atwood’s way of thinking. Back when he and I were on a panel together at TAM9, Kimball said something somewhat surprising, namely that he’s not sure we even need to test massage in randomized clinical trials because we all know that it feels good and if it feels good it can certainly be helpful at the very least to improve patients’ quality of life. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of woo in massage these days, and massage therapists who buy into the woo aren’t satisfied with simply using the rationale that massage feels good to recommend it to patients. They just can’t resist going beyond that to infuse massage therapy with every bit as much woo as any chiropractor or acupuncturist infuses into his respective specialty. For instance, some of the claims for massage include:
- Decreases muscle pain & tension.
- Rejuvenates the body and mind and lifts the spirit.
- Relieves anxiety, stress and tension.
- Relaxes muscles.
- Alleviates headaches.
- Hastens healing.
- Increases ranges of motion.
- Facilitates removal of waste and inflammation by-products.
- Stimulates the immune system.
- Eases symptoms related to fibromyalgia.
- Promotes relaxation and comfort.
- Reduces nausea in pregnant women.
- Accelerates weight gain in premature infants.
- Helps premature infants become more active and aware.
- Increases energy and alertness.
- Enhances morale and attitude.
Of course, there’s little doubt that a good massage probably can relax muscles, promote relaxation and comfort (which seems like the same thing to me), and enhance morale and attitude. I’d even be willing to concede that massage, properly administered, can probably also alleviate headaches (tension headaches, anyway) and increase range of motion in joints. But facilitate the removal of waste and inflammation byproducts? Stimulate the immune system (the all-purpose meaningless claim)? Hasten healing? Not so much.
All too often massage therapists ruin a perfectly good massage by imposing pseudoscientific and quack claims on it, such as claims that they are stimulating acupressure points or their adoption of the language of “energy healing.” Our own assistant editor, Paul Ingraham, a former massage therapist, has thoroughly covered claims about massage therapy and myofascial pain.
So it was with a bit of trepidation (but also more than a bit of interest) that I took a look at some links that readers sent me about a week ago (too late, alas, for me to write about this last Monday). These links were to news stories with titles like Scientists Uncover Why Massage Heals Sore Muscles and Massage Reduces Inflammation And Promotes Growth Of New Mitochondria Following Strenuous Exercise, Study Finds. My first impression, actually, was that this was somewhat counterintuitive in that one might predict that deep kneading of muscles might actually cause a bit of inflammation and that it’s the counterirritation effect that leads to the perceived reduction in the amount of pain. Yet, according to the press release issued by McMasters University, whose contents were mirrored in many news stories, a study claiming state-of-the-art methods is concluding that massage is reducing inflammation: