Are there any studies that support some type of health benefit associated with receiving a massage of any type?
There are a couple of studies that show massage will help with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise, but that it doesn't really impact range of motion (ROM) or peak maximal force.
This study used a small cohort of 5 males, 5 females, doing arm exercises designed to produce DOMS. One arm got massaged, the other didn't. They self reported less DOMS in the massaged muscle, but it showed no impact on ROM or peak force.
This study followed a similar path, examining hamstring contractions with a slightly larger group of 18. Each leg was exercised, and only one was massaged with similar results to the first study I cited.
So yes, massage can reduce some of the after effects of intense exercise sessions, it hasn't been proven to actually improve performance.
As a pragmatic approach I would suggest the following. Back pain and neck pain are the most common reasons why people seek for massage therapy. Most common reason for back and neck pain are muscle spasms. They are painful which cause more spasm a so a vicious circle is ready. Reason why people suffer from muscle spasm is multifactorial. Static working postures, poor muscle strength or generally bad posture leads to unfavourable muscle strains and spasms.
Massage can be really effective for the treatment of these muscle spasms. Massage relieves tension, boosts the blood flow in muscle and helps to remove lactic acid stored in muscles. However, the spasms will definitely appear again if one does not to anything to treat the fundamental reasons why muscle spasm occurs. As so there is no long term effect with massage therapy.
Massage might be beneficial for patients with subacute and chronic non-specific low-back pain, especially when combined with exercises and education (1)
There is no explicit evidence for the benefits, but what is important is that there is basically no adverse effects related to massage therapy. So in that sense massage can be helpful also for your mind and wellbeing. Exercise and education indicates the same thing I said in the beginning, in addition to relieving the spasms in your back you should also focus on the overall situation, "why do I have backpain".
With regard to neck pain the evidence is much more controversial. My personal opinion is that this might be related to etiology of the pain and spasm. Lower back in more common is obese people with poor physical condition (3) whereas neck pain is associated to overuse and bad postures (4).
Beyond addressing injuries, or as a treatment, massage has been shown to have many health benefits for otherwise healthy individuals in addition to feeling good. Here are some examples of health benefits that have some research to back them up:
- Decreasing Blood Pressure and improved circulation
- Reduced anxiety
- Improved Sleep
- Improved interpersonal relationships and feelings of self worth
- Increased alertness and ability to concentrate
Many of these benefits can also be gained by other means such as exercise or meditation, but that does not diminish the fact that massage is a means of achieving these benefits.
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