Forget the pain reliever. Learning to administer a massage following a workout could be a cost-effective and healthier alternative to medicine.

Image: Valua Vitaly/Shutterstock

It's often tempting to reach for pain reliever to ease sore muscles after a hard workout. But new research shows that giving them a 10-minute massage may be a much better post-workout option.

When a person works out, muscles may feel painful afterwards because they have actually been damaged to varying degrees, and must then repair themselves. The inflammatory response sets in; and while it is a normal part of the recovery process, it can lead to a lot of discomfort and pain. It is also true that inflammation over the long term is not generally considered a good thing.

To see whether muscle massage might aid the healing process, the researchers enlisted 11 young men to work out vigorously and then have their leg muscles biopsied to see what was happening within them. In the lab, the men cycled for 70 minutes, to the point of exhaustion. A masseuse then applied massage oil to both legs, but massaged only one leg for a 10-minute period. Small numbers of cells from the quadriceps (thigh) muscles were immediately biopsied to determine any differences in the healing processes. Another biopsy was done after 2.5 hours to make similar comparisons.

The researchers found some impressive changes in the massaged legs only. Compounds called cytokines, which are markers of the inflammatory process, were reduced in the legs that had been massaged, compared to the un-massaged legs. On top of this, mitochondria, the energy supplies in cells that help convert sugar to energy, were stimulated in the massaged legs alone.

The study suggests that swapping your painkiller for a quick massage may be a wise option, especially since suppressing the inflammatory response with medication may not be healthy for the body in the long run. And according to author Mark Tarnopolsky in a university news release, boosting the function of the mitochondria may be particularly beneficial, since mitochondrial dysfunction has been linked to muscle atrophy and other problems (like insulin resistance).

Professional massages can be expensive, but learning to do it yourself -- or, better yet, swapping massages with a family member -- could be a cost-effective and healthier alternative to medication.

The research was carried out at McMaster University and published in Science Translational Medicine.

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