Massage can help speed healing time of injured muscles, study finds

Research indicates we can ‘influence the function of the body’s immune system in a drug-free’ way, scientists say

Saman Javed
Thursday 07 October 2021 13:19 BST
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A woman uses a massage gun
A woman uses a massage gun (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

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Louise Thomas

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Massaging injuries doesn’t just make you feel better, it also helps the body heal faster and stronger, according to a new study.

Researchers at Harvard University have found that massages can flush inflammatory cells and white blood cells from injured muscle tissue, proving a “very clear connection between mechanical stimulation and immune function”.

The team, from the university’s Wyss Institute and John A Paulson School of Engineering, believe their discovery shows promise for regenerating a wide variety of body tissues including bone, hair and skin, without the use of drugs.

Published in the Science Translational Medicine journal, the study observed the healing of muscle tissues in a group of mice that were massaged using a custom-made robotics system, compared with a group that were not massaged.

After consistently massaging the mice for 14 days, the team found that damaged muscle fibres had reduced in both the treated group and the control group.

However, the reduction was “more pronounced” and the healed fibres were larger in the treated muscles.

“The greater the force applied during treatment, the stronger the injured muscles became, confirming that mechanotherapy improves muscle recovery after injury,” researchers said.

Professor Conor Walsh, who helped create the custom massage device, said the findings “are remarkable because they indicate that we can influence the function of the body’s immune system in a drug-free, non-invasive way”.

“This provides great motivation for the development of external, mechanical interventions to help accelerate and improve muscle and tissue healing that have the potential to be rapidly translated to the clinic.”

During their research, scientists also analysed the reduction in inflammation of the injured muscle tissue.

They found that inflammatory proteins, known as cytokines, were “dramatically lower” in treated muscles after just three days. The treated muscles also had fewer neutrophils, a type of white blood cell.

To test whether the massage had cleared these, the team injected fluorescent molecules into the muscles of the treated group, finding that the force of the massage device did indeed flush out cytokines and neutrophils.

“While the inflammatory response is important for regeneration in the initial stages of healing, it is equally important that inflammation is quickly resolved to enable the regenerative processes to run its full course,” Stephanie McNamara, an author of the study said.

Don Ingbert, the founding director of the Wyss Institute, said the study reveals a new form of therapy that “potentially could be as potent as chemical or gene therapies, but much simpler and less invasive”.

“The idea that mechanics influence cell and tissue function was ridiculed until the last few decades, and while scientists have made great strides in establishing acceptance of this fact, we still know very little about how that process actually works at the organ level,” he said.

“This research has revealed a previously unknown type of interplay between mechanobiology and immunology that is critical for muscle tissue healing.”

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