The mechanisms of massage and effects on performance, muscle recovery and injury prevention

Weerapong P, Hume PA, Kolt GS

Many coaches, athletes and sports medicine personnel hold the belief, based on observations and experiences, that massage can provide several benefits to the body such as increased blood flow, reduced muscle tension and neurological excitability, and an increased sense of well-being.

Massage can produce mechanical pressure, which is expected to increase muscle compliance resulting in increased range of joint motion, decreased passive stiffness and decreased active stiffness (biomechanical mechanisms). Mechanical pressure might help to increase blood flow by increasing the arteriolar pressure, as well as increasing muscle temperature from rubbing. Depending on the massage technique, mechanical pressure on the muscle is expected to increase or decrease neural excitability as measured by the Hoffman reflex (neurological mechanisms).

Changes in parasympathetic activity (as measured by heart rate, blood pressure and heart rate variability) and hormonal levels (as measured by cortisol levels) following massage result in a relaxation response (physiological mechanisms). A reduction in anxiety and an improvement in mood state also cause relaxation (psychological mechanisms) after massage.

Therefore, these benefits of massage are expected to help athletes by enhancing performance and reducing injury risk. However, limited research has investigated the effects of pre-exercise massage on performance and injury prevention. Massage between events is widely investigated because it is believed that massage might help to enhance recovery and prepare athletes for the next event. Unfortunately, very little scientific data has supported this claim. The majority of research on psychological effects of massage has concluded that massage produces positive effects on recovery (psychological mechanisms).

Post-exercise massage has been shown to reduce the severity of muscle soreness but massage has no effects on muscle functional loss. Notwithstanding the belief that massage has benefits for athletes, the effects of different types of massage (e.g. petrissage, effleurage, friction) or the appropriate timing of massage (pre-exercise vs post-exercise) on performance, recovery from injury, or as an injury prevention method are not clear.

Explanations are lacking, as the mechanisms of each massage technique have not been widely investigated. Therefore, this article discusses the possible mechanisms of massage and provides a discussion of the limited evidence of massage on performance, recovery and muscle injury prevention. The limitations of previous research are described and further research is recommended.
Sports Medicine – 2005;35(3):235-56 – abstract