Microscopic Benefits of Massage Therapy

Massage is often considered a luxury for people rich in both time and money.  However, like exercising, massage is a necessity for your body for numerous reasons.  Many of those reasons you might see listed on a brochure advertising for a local massage place.  While those listed on the advertisement are likely valid effects of massage, thoughtful work by your therapist can take advantage of the body’s healing process at a cellular level to create a more neutral, pain free posture for your body.  

Commonly Noted Benefits of Massage Therapy

We all have heard and will likely to continue to hear about the “benefits of massage therapy.”  Some of those common benefits noted are

  • Reduces stress
  • Improves relaxation
  • Reduces pain
  • Improves blood flow / increases circulation
  • Reduces severity and frequency of headaches
  • Improves sleep quality and quantity
  • Decreases recovery time after exertion
  • Body enters “rest and digest” (the opposite of “fight or flight” response)
  • Promotes healing after injury
  • Increases general physical mobility
  • Releases of serotonin and dopamine (feel-good chemicals)
Massage has numerous benefits. / Image available via CC0

Massage has numerous benefits. / Image available via CC0

Effect at a cellular level

Massage has effects at the cellular level too.  While the cellular physiology is not completely understood, there are two types of sensory receptors that have been proposed to be affected by massage therapy.

Golgi Tendon Organs (aka “GTOs”) are mostly found in the muscle tendons and are responsible for measuring and helping to establish the tone of the muscle.  Feedback from the GTO’s to the central nervous system (which is commonly referred to as the CNS) create responses that control the tone of the muscle.  Effective massage on the tendons theoretically resets the calibration of the muscle’s tone to a less armored and more malleable state.  

Golgi Tendon Organ / Image available in the public domain

Golgi Tendon Organ / Image available in the public domain

Muscle Spindles are mostly found in the belly of the muscle, parallel to the muscle fibers. Muscle spindles play a role in regulating contraction of the muscle and resisting muscle stretch.  The CNS also processes information from muscle spindles to determine position in space.  While this effect is important and prevents you from seriously hurting yourself, too much of it is going to create a significantly shorter muscle than your body needs.  If one muscle is too short, its opposite muscle is likely stretched too far.  Purposeful massage on the muscle bellies theoretically resets the calibration of the muscle spindle to a longer state.

Light microscope photograph of a muscle spindle / Image by A. Pedro Marinho

Light microscope photograph of a muscle spindle / Image by A. Pedro Marinho

Effective and Thoughtful Massage Therapy

Elongating Massage

Effective massage takes advantage of the calibration reset for tight and short muscles within your body.  For example, if your shoulders are pulling forward creating a postural condition called “rounded shoulders,” a thoughtful massage would include work on your pecs–friction on the tendons near the rib and the humerus attachments to decrease the tone, and glides on the actual muscle bellies to increase the length.  Throw in some pin and stretch for good measure and the pecs will recalibrate to a longer, more relaxed state.  This will release the forward pull on your shoulders, allowing them to settle into a more neutral position.

Stimulating massage

But what if your problem is a muscle that is too long, chronically stretched?  That muscle is sometimes called “stretch weakened.”  A stretch weakened muscle is typically the one that hurts.  In the above example, a patient who has rounded shoulders and chronically shortened pecs (called “adaptively shortened”) will likely have pain complaints across their upper back.  This is because the back muscles are stretched and stretched and stretched because the pecs are pulling the shoulders forward.  Unfortunately in this instance, some massage therapists will only massage the back because that is where the patient complains of pain.  I have had a massage where my back was worked but not my pecs.  I walked out of there in less pain, but with my shoulders pulling forward more than ever.  A better plan for this complaint would be a brief, stimulating massage on the back, where the pain is, to bring blood to the area and then deeper more specific work on the pecs.

A stimulating massage brings blood and nutrients back to the area and reminds the body to heal.  After massaging a specific area, do you notice the area becomes red?  That is because blood is rushing to the area creating the effect called “hyperemia.”  Your body has great ability to heal, but sometimes forgets to finish the job.  Think of a team of firefighters with severe attention deficit issues.  The firefighters get the flames under control but wander away to the next fire before completely extinguishing the current fire.  Manually stimulating blood and nutrients to a specific area will “remind” the body to heal and assist the body’s healing process.

Meh, good enough. Onto the next fire!

“My work here seems to be done,” says your body. / Image available via CC0.

My Conclusions

Massage has profound effects on the body and should not be viewed as a luxury.  In addition to the commonly noted benefits of massage therapy, an attentive massage therapist will use massage techniques to deliberately promote a more neutral posture.  This posture will hopefully alleviate your pain complaints and promote the body’s intrinsic healing process.  


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