Why one type of massage can help muscles heal faster – study
Ah, the massages. The process of kneading your body like bread dough is both an exercise in preference – and a scientifically-based way to improve your health, new research shows.
Do you like a light touch with your fingertips hovering over your sore muscles, or do you want someone to ram their elbow into your shoulder blade with the full weight of their body? What about a massage gun, which evokes both relaxation and violence in a single object?
Massage guns, like the Theragun or the Hypervolt, offer a type of mechanotherapy, which is when a mechanical device treats what is hurting you. Unlike human hands, which can move and press with more nuance but less consistency, these tools deliver percussive motion at exact speed and pressure. For those who like to be pushed and pushed into their sore spots, this therapy may seem ideal.
Massage therapy has been used and studied for thousands of years, and has been shown to improve symptoms of conditions ranging from fibromyalgia to depression. The biological mechanisms, however, have been less understood.
In a study published in October in the journal Science Translational Medicine, researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute examined the benefits of massage as mechanotherapy, focusing on a device similar to a massage gun. While the study looked at mice, the researchers found that massage guns may benefit people due to a relationship between mechanical stimulation, skeletal muscle repair, and immune function.
These results suggest that this form of massage may be beneficial for people with chronic musculoskeletal pain and generally for people seeking to overcome muscle injury.
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Why is it a hack – After muscle injury, the injured tissue swells with inflammatory cells called cytokines. Cytokines trigger the descent of immune cells called neutrophils in a biological response.
The study team suspected that the pressure applied by the mechanotherapy would massage cytokines and neutrophils out of the injured muscle.
“So that’s pretty cool.”
Neutrophils are essential for muscle recovery in the early stages of healing, but can actually become harmful if left on for too long. If they are there longer than necessary, they can start to attack the muscle and hamper regeneration. By flushing out both the inflamed cytokines as well as the neutrophils, the muscles could heal effectively but also begin to regenerate sooner.
“It turns out that the improvement in the healing process with this therapy mechanism is in part due to the modulation of immune responses,” said lead author Bo Ri Seo, postdoctoral researcher at the Wyss Institute. Reverse. “So that’s pretty cool.”
Science in action – Seo and his colleagues tested their mechanotherapy hypothesis on mice, and if you imagine a tiny spa for little mice, that’s understandable, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. Instead, the team built a squeeze device that performs the same role as a massage gun, but for a mouse.
First, they surgically induced ischemia in mice, impeding blood flow to the muscles in their legs so that the muscles atrophied. This process created the injury the team wanted to assess.
The mice then underwent mechanotherapy while the scientists monitored the machine’s pressure and performed an ultrasound on the leg.
It was to observe the movement of muscles in response to the machine. They noted how the mice healed in 14 days with mechanotherapy compared to without it, and also how much pressure, measured in Newtons, had the optimal effect.
According to Seo, between 0.15 and 2.6 Newtons from the mechanical massager had the greatest healing effect on the muscle during the two-week period compared to other pressures, if any.
However, muscles of different sizes will require varying strengths for optimal healing. Seo’s team applied mechanotherapy to the anterior tibialis of the mice. In humans, it would be the thick muscle along our tibia connecting our knees and ankles.
The team also created a computer model that could actually optimize compressor strength and its effect on muscle. They were able to build a model that spits out what frequency and how much force is needed to have some influence on the muscle.
What does that mean exactly for humans is to be determined – the team then wants to expand the research to larger animals, such as rabbits. But they predict that these findings will support, and possibly explain, previous findings that suggest massage therapy is beneficial for injuries.
âWe do not yet know that this method [has a] a similar impact in terms of making new muscle fibers or making different types of muscle makeup, as we’ve seen in this article, âsays Seo. So, should people try a massage gun?
âWe know that massage therapy is already helpful in helping patients feel better, so if people want to feel better, sure, why not? Seo said.
How it affects longevity – Frequent exercise is known to improve quality of life and longevity, and we need healthy muscles to exercise. But as we age, our muscles inevitably atrophy and we lose muscle mass.
âIt creates a vicious cycle,â Seo says. “If you’re losing muscle mass, you can’t really do a lot of physical activity, and that basically prevents you from gaining muscle mass.”
An early muscle injury can hamper the continued growth of muscle mass, so if left untreated, a muscle injury can be very debilitating. Mechanotherapy could perhaps stimulate muscle regeneration in our later years, which would allow us to actively live with a healthier body. It’s a much better cycle.
So whether you love, hate, or don’t really care about massages, this research suggests that mechanotherapy, in particular, is worth it. And maybe that means you should open up that mouse spa you’ve been thinking of.
HACK SCORE OUT OF 10 – ðððððð (6/10 laboratory mice)