The following extract has been taken from The Complete Guide to Sports Massage, (Bloomsbury Publishing 3rd edition 2014), written by BeActive Clinic Director, Tim Paine. Please refer to this book for the full version.
Many of the beliefs relating to the benefits of massage are traditionally based ideas. However, in recent years more and more research has been conducted to examine these concepts. Here we present an overview of the benefits of sports massage, as practised and widely accepted at the time of writing.
Massage aims to produce effects in four dimensions of bodily systems: physical, physiological, neurological and psychological. While these effects are closely interrelated, it is the initial physical effects brought about by the manual skills of a massage therapist that lead to the physiological, neurological and psychological effects. Hence, the stroking, squeezing, compression, rubbing, etc., that is applied to the skin and underlying muscles produce not only physical benefits, but also triggers physiological, neurological and psychological responses in the body. The type and extent of the effects on the body depends on the technique itself, the depth to which it is applied, the pace, how long for, how frequently, and the area of the body being massaged.
The physical effects of sports massage
Muscle fibres can contract and therefore have good extensibility. Most of the restriction in the flexibility of a muscle derives from the connective tissue that surrounds the muscle and the muscle fibres. Rigorous massage movements, such as kneading and wringing, stretch and loosen the skin and underlying tissue. Increased localised blood circulation and temperature, during massage help the tissues become more pliable. This all helps restore flexibility and repeated bouts of stretching may lead to changes in connective tissue, plus an increase in the length of muscle fibres.
Relieves muscle tension
Muscle tension may be reduced by simple stroking actions that stimulate the peripheral nerve receptors which are nerve endings situated in the skin and underlying fascia that detect changes in the environment. Such changes in the environment may relate to temperature, pain, pressure and so on. Depending on the stimulus, the response may be for the muscle tension to increase or for muscles to relax. This is a reflex action, as distinct from the use of mechanical forces to stretch muscle fibres and connective tissues, as described above. We can now understand how discomfort or pain during massage would cause muscles to tighten up, while stroking movements help relax them.
Improves flexibility of muscle
Studies have shown that massage aimed at muscle relaxation can result in an increased range of motion in a joint.
Swelling may be caused by blood which has leaked out from torn blood vessels, or by fluids moving through the capillary walls into interstitial spaces. By massaging the area, an increase in movement and temperature within the soft tissues will increase lymph flow leading to fluids being reabsorbed into the circulatory system.
Physiological effects of sports massage
Increases blood and lymph flow
As the depth and pressure of the massage increases, so does the probability that the deep blood vessels are compressed and released, stimulating circulation. Prolonged massage has been demonstrated to increase lymph flow from the area being massaged through the lymph glands towards the heart. Increased lymph flow from the extremities may be best stimulated by deep stroking and kneading techniques.
Just as blood flow may be increased following appropriate forms of massage, this leads to an improved supply of oxygen and nutrients to the soft tissue. As lymph flow increases as a result of massage, waste products from areas of soft tissue may be reabsorbed more quickly via the lymphatic system into the circulatory system.
Neurological effects of sports massage
There are several reflex actions that the therapist can induce which will have a sedative effect on the client or a relaxing effect on specific muscles. One of these, which has a significant role to play in sports massage, is pain relief. It is known that rubbing the painful area stimulates the sensory nerve endings situated in the skin, creating signals that block the transmission of the pain to the spinal cord.
Stimulation of the nervous system may cause the blood vessels to dilate and therefore be a major factor contributing to an increase in blood circulation and temperature, which in turn brings about increased muscle elasticity, and delivers fresh nutrients and oxygen to the muscles.
Psychological effects of sports massage
Massage should for the most part be a pleasant experience. Therefore, as clients learn this, the expectation often leads to them being in a more relaxed mental state before the massage begins. There is also a considerable overlap between the neurological and the psychological dimensions. For example, it is more difficult to achieve muscular relaxation without a conscious effort being made to relax mentally at the same time. In this way the neurological stimulus to muscles may be minimised.
In short, the pleasant feeling brought about by the neurological feedback from appropriate massage techniques helps with the process of mentally ‘letting go’ (psychological response), which helps to further relax the muscles, and in turn improve the function of the muscle. Massage therefore may be considered to help with physical relaxation, relief of tension, and anxiety, when applied appropriately.
Massage may also be used for reducing perception of pain. By using massage to affect neurological change, the psychological perception of pain will also be altered, potentially leading to reduced muscle tension, less pressure on sensory nerve endings, and so creating cyclical alleviation of the pain symptom. This obviously plays an important role when dealing with injury management and rehabilitation.
There is much speculation and research concerning perception of pain and the belief that clients’ reduction in discomfort is due to their expectation that the massage will be successful in achieving this. Some views have been expressed criticising massage for this reason while others more concerned simply with improving performance take the view that as long as there is a benefit to the athlete, does it matter whether it due to neurological/ physiological change, or purely down to the athlete and their perception?
Stimulates physical activity
Just as you can bring about a relaxed state, so too can you alter the pace and intensity of a massage to stimulate the athlete and encourage physical activity. The soft-tissue therapist must assess their client’s physical and mental state before deciding on an appropriate approach.
Director at BeActive Clinic