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A new study by a group at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) shows that massages can help increase blood flow and reduce muscle soreness after exercising. The study, printed in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, also showed improvements in people who had not exercised in terms of blood flow. These two findings continue to support a hypothesis on the value of massages for people of all activity levels and vascular health.
Advocates of massages have long touted the circulate and muscle benefits of getting massages. Many professional athletes buy into these claims and get regular massages, especially after big games or events. At the same time, no major randomized controlled trial has been conducted due to the high costs associated with that type of gold-standard study. Instead, we have a growing body of cheaper and smaller studies including this one by UIC. Over time, it is possible the evidence level builds up to really support more interventional massages as part of routine care.
This new study helps validate that potential message by using patient-centric outcomes. Study participants were asked to do leg presses until they felt sore. One cohort received massages after this, while the other cohort did not. Soreness was rated on a scale of 1 to 10 both right after the exercise and after 24 hours. The massage cohort reported no continuing soreness even 90 minutes after the massage, whereas the other group still had soreness 24 hours after the exercise. Brachial artery flow mediated dilation (FMD) was also measured in the upper arm at 90 minutes after exercise as well as 1, 2, and 3 days afterward. FMD improved for both groups over time, as expected, but the exercise-only group lagged in return to normalcy, suggesting that there is a physiological mechanism behind the results and not only a placebo effect. The FMD results also suggest a systemic effect since the readings were from the arm and the exercise was in the legs.
While more robust and larger randomized clinical trials will be needed to further quantify the effects of massage, the early data certainly suggest that there is a benefit. And either way, we know there are not any major safety issues with getting massages for most people, so that makes it an okay thing to try for those who may believe it could help so long as the cost justifies the potential upside. Specific studies on cost effectiveness may be able to further delineate this latter point and could eventually increase access to massages if insurance companies and other payers start to see the value in them and are willing to pay for them. Provider referrals would likely be required in these cases, so the medical body of evidence also needs to grow, but as of now, there is not much holding that back other than the issues of cost when it comes to running large studies to confirm physiological and medical effects. It will be interesting to see how the impact of a massage on blood circulation develops over time.
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