The word massage alone elicits deep relaxation and stress relief, and now a new study sheds light on how deep touch works to ease pain and promote healing in sore muscles.
Researchers at McMaster University in Canada found that massage affects the activity of certain genes, directly reducing inflammation in muscles — the same result you’d get by taking aspirin or ibuprofen — and boosting their ability to recover from exercise.
The study involved 11 young men who were willing to engage in what the researchers described as “exhaustive aerobic exercise” — the equivalent of an intense spinning class. The men rode stationary bikes to the point of exhaustion.
After the workout, each man received a 10-minute Swedish-style massage on only one leg; the other leg served as the control. They also had biopsies taken from their leg muscles before and after exercise, immediately after massage and then again two and a half hours later.
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Researchers found that massage set off a series of molecular events in muscles that helped reverse discomfort related to exercise. Massage dampened the activity of proteins known as inflammatory cytokines, which cause inflammation and pain. It also increased levels of proteins that signal the muscles to produce more mitochondria, the cell structures that produce energy and help muscles recover from activity.
Tiffany Field, a leading researcher on the effects of massage and director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School, says she found the results “very believable.” She was not associated with the new research. (Field notes that her group is planning to study the effect of massage on some of the same inflammatory cytokines in HIV-positive pregnant women.)
Massage basically has the same pain-relieving effect as drugs like aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve), says Field. Known as NSAIDS, for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, these medications work by reducing levels of substances called prostaglandins that increase levels of inflammatory cytokines. “By reducing the inflammation — or the pro-inflammatory cytokines, to be specific — you would reduce pain,” says Field.
Mainstream medicine has often dismissed massage as a bona fide therapy, but “these findings will have an impact on traditional medicine, as every ‘beneath-the-skin’ finding helps,” says Field.
The study was published in Science Translational Medicine.
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Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.