Many people enjoy getting massages for relaxation and tension relief. Now, scientists suggest that massage may also reduce postexercise inflammation and improve recovery.

A report published in Science Translational Medicine (2012; 4 [119], 119ra13) focused on what happens to the muscle at a physiological level when massage is applied after intense exercise. The test subjects, 11 young males, underwent resting muscle biopsies of the right and left vastus lateralis before the intervention. They then exercised at a high-intensity level for about 70 minutes.

Once the exercise protocol was complete, a licensed massage therapist massaged one leg of each participant for 10 minutes; the other, nonmassaged leg of each participant acted as a control. The scientists were not told which leg had been massaged. Participants then underwent two more rounds of biopsies on each leg: one immediately postmassage and the other 2.5 hours later. Researchers used microarray technology to measure abundance of mRNA (messenger RNA).

“Pathways that were apparent reflected an increase in mitochondrial biogenesis and a decrease in inflammation,” explained lead author Mark Tarnopolsky, MD, PhD. In the massaged legs, the scientists discovered an increase in PGC-1α, which leads to the development of mitochondria—organelles that function in energy production. Researchers also saw a decrease in NFκB (nuclear factor kappa-beta), indicating a drop in inflammation levels.

“The overall theme of the biochemical work is that the pathways for mitochondrial biogenesis appear to be enhanced and those pathways involved in the muscle inflammatory response appear to be attenuated in the massaged leg post-exercise,” Tarnopolsky added. But he cautioned that these data support only acute responses and that research to determine long-term effects is warranted. Tarnopolsky could not offer a hypothesis on whether these same benefits could be derived from self-massage techniques using tools like a foam roller.