Massage therapy may be more popular than ever – with growing numbers of Americans seeking relief from aching joints, sore muscles and stress.
In 2013, Massage Envy – the McDonald’s of massage — crossed the $1 billion dollar mark in sales. And today the fast growing company’s 21,000 therapists provide 1.5 million massages every month at 960 franchises around the country.
But behind this booming business is an unwelcome fact. Although many agree that massage makes them feel better – there has been little scientific evidence that massage actually provides health benefits.
But a new study, reported online in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, found that massage not only improves blood flow and soothes sore muscles after exercise – it can improve the cardiovascular health of people regardless of their level of physical activity.
“Our study validates the value of massage in exercise and injury, which has been previously recognized but based on minimal data,” said lead author Nina Cherie Franklin, a University of Illinois at Chicago postdoctoral fellow in physical therapy. “It also suggests the value of massage outside of the context of exercise.”
Researchers enrolled 36 sedentary adults between the ages of 18 to 40 in the study and randomly assigned them to one of three groups.
Two groups were asked to exercise their legs until they were sore using a standard leg press machine. One group received leg massages, with conventional Swedish massage techniques, after exercising. The second group exercised but received no massage, while the third group received a massage but did not exercise.
As expected, both exercise groups experienced soreness immediately after exercise. But the exercise-and-massage group reported no soreness 90 minutes after massage therapy. The exercise-only group reported continued soreness 24 hours after exercise.
Blood flow was also measured in the upper arm using brachial artery flow mediated dilation (FMD) — a standard metric of general vascular health
For the exercise-and massage-group, FMD indicated improved blood flow as long as 72 hours after a massage. In the exercise-only group, there was reduced blood flow in the upper arm and it took 72 hours to return to normal levels.
“The big surprise was the massage-only control group, who showed virtually identical levels of improvement in circulation as the exercise and massage group,” said Shane Phillips, a UIC associate professor of physical therapy and principal investigator on the study. “The circulatory response was sustained for a number of days, which suggests that massage may be protective.”
“We believe that massage is really changing physiology in a positive way. This is not just blood flow speeds—this is actually a vascular response.”
For people with limited mobility or those with impaired vascular function, researchers say regular massage could offer significant benefits – such as reduced hypertension — even without exercise.
“We have demonstrated that a single massage therapy treatment improves brachial artery endothelium-dependent FMD for up to 48 hours days. Since FMD correlates well with cardiovascular risk, the results of our studies may indicate that the use of massage therapy as a means of reducing EMI (muscle injury) and post-exercise hypoperfusion in at risk populations (i.e. heart disease) undergoing higher intensity exercise training regimens.”
About 22 million American adults get massages every year. About a third do so for health reasons such as pain relief, injury recovery and physical therapy.
The UIC study was funded by the Massage Therapy Foundation, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and the National Center for Research Resources.