Updated January 2024

Massage therapy has often been touted as the Swiss Army knife of pain reduction. Got a pulled muscle? Get a massage. The many massage locations in nearly every town will promote that message. However, does it work? Does massage therapy reduce pain and inflammation?

Massage Therapy Does Work, and Here’s How

Strenuous exercise creates minuscule muscle tears. In response, your body releases cytokines, which create inflammation as a by-product of your muscles trying to repair themselves. Recent research has demonstrated that massaging muscles after they have been worked to full exertion helps reduce the body’s production of those inflammation-causing chemicals. Theoretically, this means less post-workout soreness. What’s more, massage can increase the production of cell mitochondria, which contribute to cell repair—a process that may also be a potential source of pain reduction.

Person running a race and getting massage therapy for a muscle spasm.
Massage therapy can help reduce post-workout soreness.

A pleasurable massage generally increases serotonin activity and the production of endorphins and dopamine. These are all positive brain chemicals. They elevate mood and indirectly contribute to feeling better by helping to improve sleep and reduce feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety.

Realize that not all massages are therapeutic. Practitioners have to know how to target muscle groups. They also need to know the protocols for healthy massage therapy. Doing it wrong can create problems, so experience and training count.

Neuromuscular Massage Therapy

For lower back pain and muscle spasms caused by soft tissue injury (such as a muscle strain), neuromuscular massage therapy — also called trigger-point myotherapy — can be effective. This kind of massage involves the physical therapist applying deep pressure in one spot at a time for about 10 to 30 seconds. This technique forces the muscle to release lactic acid, a chemical that prevents proper blood and oxygen flow. Improved blood and oxygen movement means faster and better muscle healing. But trigger-point myotherapy should only be performed by a trained professional.

Massage may be less helpful for the phenomenon known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS often occurs after you’ve worked muscles in unfamiliar or especially strenuous ways; the muscles don’t begin to hurt until some time (roughly eight to 24 hours) has passed. The soreness can then linger for one to three days.

Muscle Knots

A muscle knot, also known as a myofascial trigger point, is a small, palpable, and often painful nodule or lump in a muscle. These knots are thought to be caused by muscle fibers that contract and form a tight, tense bundle. They can result from various factors, including muscle overuse, poor posture, stress, or injury. Typical treatment includes massage therapy, heat and cold therapy, and stretching.

If you have muscle soreness you suspect might be relieved by massage therapy, come in for an evaluation. We can create an individual therapy plan for you to ease your pain substantially—and, just as important, help prevent future injuries.

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