Massage and Muscle Myths

Generations of massage therapists have been taught, and have taught their clients, that massage flushes toxins out of the body. This information is typically conveyed with an offering of a glass of water after the massage, to finish the “flushing” process.

Another wide-spread concept of muscle function has it that over-exercising leads to lactic acid build-up and consequent soreness in the muscles.

Scientists and researchers interested in verifying theories through evidence have discovered that these two popular ideas are actually not backed up by facts.

A third myth, which has been more widely and thoroughly discredited, was that massage was contraindicated for cancer patients, based on the thought that massage could encourage cancer cells to metastasize.  Actually massage is extremely helpful to cancer patients in almost all cases, reducing stress and facilitating better sleep and reduced pain.  Oh, and it’s Ok to sometimes massage against venous flow. The valves in the veins are not harmed.

All of these ideas were based on assumptions that seemed logical at the time, and seemed to provide an explanation for things people had observed or experienced.

Keith Eric Grant, PhD, showed that the only kinds of toxins that are stored in tissues are stored in fat and skeletal tissue, and cannot be manually removed. (Massage Today December, 2002, Vol. 02, Issue 12)  Muscles are in a constant flow of blood and lymph circulation, which effectively takes away waste and brings nutrients and oxygen. Without this circulation we would have gangrene, necrosis, and edema. Fortunately, I seldom see these concerns listed on intake forms.   In the case of edema,( excess fluid in the tissues from trauma or certain illnesses), there is a massage technique.  Manual lymph drainage, in contrast to your typical massage session, uses  very light pressure on the delicate lymph vessels to  encourage the excess lymph fluid along its normal path.

Lactic acid does not persist in the muscle tissue. It is gone within an hour or two, either naturally dispersing, or providing a potent source of energy that muscles can burn.  (Gina Kolata, New York Times, 5/16/2006)

The causes of soreness in tissues, whether from over-exercise or after a massage, are more likely to stem from micro-tears of the soft tissue, which in moderation is normal.  A slight bit of soreness after exercise is part of the strengthening process, and massage aids in the speedy recovery by helping restore normal tissue elasticity and flow.

A bit of soreness after a massage is most likely in cases where the client has one or more of the following factors: high mental or emotional stress, poor diet, inadequate sleep, poor posture, prolonged sitting, lack of exercise, and overly repetitive activities.  The muscles and fascia develop stiffness – stuck in a shortened position, and “stickiness” – layers become adhered.  In order to interrupt these dysfunctional conditions; lengthen contracted muscle and separate adhesions, there will be a bit of tenderness and possibly post-massage soreness.

I would never suggest that a massage needs to be painful. Each client needs to communicate their comfort zone, and therapists take care to consider the client’s response. But a body under a lot of stress will likely feel some discomfort on the path to healing.  Most of the time, people feel much better after a day or two, and far better than before the massage.  Massage applied with appropriate pressure helps the healing and strengthening process, reducing pain, loosening adhesions and scar tissue, and encouraging muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia to build and repair in a more flexible and functional structure. And it feels good!