Massage therapy is at least 7 thousand years-old. As you might expect, it’s first written mention is from Chinese writing from around 5,000 BCE. What might be surprising, though, is that we’re finally, maybe, figuring out how it works. We’ve come up with a lot of sensible hypotheses over the years, but most of them have failed rigorous study. And yet, they’re so sensible that your massage therapist might still think they’re true.
Here are 4 untruths (lies sounds so judgmental) your massage therapist may have told you.
- Untruth: Massage releases toxins, so be sure to drink water all day.
- Fact: Oh man, this could be a post all by itself. Suffice it to say that massage is incapable of squeezing pesticides or metals out of your tissues (which would be dangerous if possible), and the body handles metabolic wastes just fine on it’s own, thank you.
- Untruth: Massage strokes towards the heart encourage venous return
Fact: Ultrasound imaging during massage shows blood flow is disrupted and made more chaotic. However, massage has been shown to improve local and systemic circulation. This is most likely achieved through general relaxation, and mechanically stimulated vasodilation. In other wordsmassage helps you relax and encourages the arteries to open wider.
- Untruth: Massage can lengthen your IT band, plantar fascia, or other fascial structure.
- Fact: Collagen is stronger than steel. Even the People’s Elbow isn’t powerful enough to stretch your fascia.
- Untruth: The Extracellular Matrix (ECM), aka ground substance (is that really the best we can come up with?), aka the gooey stuff between all our cells everywhere, is thixotropic. This means that applying a shear stress for long enough causes the ECM to thin out, which might help muscles lengthen.
- Fact: This fails a basic test of logic. How long have you been sitting in a chair, reading this post? Stand up. Is your butt shaped exactly like the chair? No? If 5 minutes won’t do it, then a 30 second massage stroke can’t either. But don’t take my word for it. Dr. Robert Schleip, the world’s preeminent fascia researcher, has said “either much longer amounts of time or significantly more force are required for permanent deformation of dense connective tissues.”
- Untruth: Massage, ART, or instrument assisted soft tissue mobilization (IASTM), like Graston, can break up scar tissue.
- Fact: This is similar to the previous item. Scar tissue is just connective tissue that is laid down in a chaotic pattern to prevent movement of the injured tissue while it heals. Once the injury has healed, regular use through full ranges of motion will stimulate the body to break the scar tissue down and resorb the building blocks (that’s not a typo, I don’t know why they don’t say “absorb”). For tricky spots, or to speed the process up, manual therapy or IASTM can irritate the scar tissue and create a local inflammatory response, which, again, allows the body to resorb the scar tissue’s molecular parts.
So what’s really going on? Here are 3 facts we’ve uncovered through research
- Fact: Massage therapy has been shown to improve intertissue glide. In a rat model, repetitive strain injuries occurred in tissues adjacent to tissues that should have been moving, but weren’t. Ultrasound imaging showed that massage was able to restore normal tissue movement.
- Fact: Massage therapy has been shown to stimulate the production of hyaluronic acid, an essential component of the ECM. This gooey substance improves the glide (not slide, there’s no friction) interaction between tissues, and can help sticky spots resume normal function.
- Fact: Massage therapy probably has most of it’s effect through stimulation of the nervous system. What’s the evidence? For starters, orthopedic surgeons have noticed that patients have far more flexibility under general anesthesia than they do when fully conscious. In fact, they rely on it during joint replacement surgeries to test the implant and ensure it won’t come apart when the patient uses it.Furthermore, before he earned his Ph.D., Dr. Schleip performed several Rolfing sessions with clients who were under general anesthesia. He found exactly zero change in their alignment or range of motion. Long story short, massage’s most powerful mechanism is likely as a novel stimulus to the nervous system. Of course, once you make change available, you have to use it, under load, or the nervous system will go right back to what it was doing before.
At Integration Bodywork, we exclusively use techniques that target those basic mechanisms. Myofascial release techniques target neurologically dense fascia. Tendinous attachment work targets the golgi tendon organs and muscle spindle organs in the muscles and tendons, which help regulate length-tension relationships. We ask you to move your body while applying strokes to both stimulate the nervous system, and encourage intertissue glide.
You won’t find any essential oils, crystals, voodoo, “energy work”, or magical thinking in our office. Just the best therapeutic massage and bodywork in Madison.
Scott Robison, LMT#12892-146, practices structural bodywork in Madison, Wisconsin. When people ask him what he does for fun, he usually looks confused, then answers with CrossFit and keeping his 2 kids alive. But not in that order. Sometimes.