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Are there any studies that support some type of health benefit associated with receiving a massage of any type?

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  • Massage relaxes mucles, this is surly unquestionable, and must be very helpful in many medical areas, for example removing nearly all pain for a significant amount of time to enable movement to aid recovery from pain and/or injury. But even the aspect of good feeling can be beneficial to health. A lack of good feeling for an extended length of time can lead to the worst possible self inflicted side effect of injury, and freeing up of a patients body to move and recover is very likely to prevent this. ...
    – alan2here
    Aug 22, 2016 at 0:32
  • ... Massage, either in its most raw form, or, for example, in a more involved manner by a physician such as an osteopath, can be essential. I feel that I should add these two comments despite my lack of sources, and welcome feedback to the sentement I pose, with an acceptance that I could be wrong.
    – alan2here
    Aug 22, 2016 at 0:47

3 Answers 3

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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.

There are two Cochrane reviews published in this topic (1), (2):

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).

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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.

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  • 1
    How is reducing DOMS a health benefit above just feeling good? Is DOMS a health risk? This does not answer the question asked. The studies cited are good beginning points, but their sample size is too small to prove your claim that "massage can reduce some of the after effects of intense exercise sessions" and leaves all the legwork of determining truth or fiction to the original asker's knowledge of sample size. Implying that this is a complete answer ignores the more pertinent health benefits of massage, and leaves the reader to assume that there are no other benefits.
    – Dr. Duncan
    Aug 25, 2015 at 22:18
  • 1
    @Dr.Duncan - Pain reduction is one of the most common and important functions health care providers provide. If you have other valid objections (it seems to me there's a bit of a peeve in your comment), please state them objectively. Aug 28, 2015 at 5:13
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Quality research on massage is exceptionally hard to find

Most studies you'll find have questionable methods or very small sample groups. You have to be very careful searching for studies, as the conclusions are often not justified by the methods and/or numbers

What are medical benefits of massage?

  • It feels good. This is a good thing in and of itself, especially for stressed people, as it lowers e.g. neurogenic muscle tone and cortisone levels.
  • It lowers local pain. This is often a treatment goal so there's that.
  • It helps building a therapeutic alliance between patient and therapist. And it gives time for e.g. assessing medical history etc. while doing so.

Insofar it does not hurt to do that as an entry-point for further therapeutic interventions as it allows the patient to arrive there, focus on what is about to come and lowers their immediate stress and pain levels.

What massage does not do

The physiological results are limited to what I wrote above and skin perfusion. The effects last no longer than some hours max. So pain relief, for example, is comparable to a common pain killer pill in effect and duration.

For a good therapy and a lasting success, people need to be empowered for self-management and need education, no matter whether we speak about pain or functional muscle problems. Therefore, massage as the sole intervention has to be considered a bad therapy. Only exception here is lymphatic drainage massage for some acute or chronic problems, like lipo edema.

Sources

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Boyd C, Crawford C, Paat CF, et al. The impact of massage therapy on function in pain populations —A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials: Part III, surgical pain populations. Pain Med 2016;17: 1757–1772.

Crawford C, Boyd C, Paat CF, et al. The impact of massage therapy on function in pain populations — A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials: Part I, patients experiencing pain in the general population. Pain Med 2016;17:1353–1375. Furlan AD, Giraldo M, Baskwill A, et al. Massage for lowback pain. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2015;9:CD001929.

Guo J, Li L, Gong Y, et al. Massage alleviates delayed onset muscle soreness after strenuous exercise: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Front Physiol 2017;8: 747. Qaseem, Amir, et al. "Noninvasive treatments for acute, subacute, and chronic low back pain: a clinical practice guideline from the American College of Physicians." Annals of internal medicine 166.7 (2017): 514-530.

Shin ES, Seo KH, Lee SH, et al. Massage with or without aromatherapy for symptom relief in people with cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2016;6:CD009873.

Smith CA, Levett KM, Collins CT, et al. Massage, reflexology and other manual methods for pain management in labour. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2018;3: CD009290.

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