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Once a luxury associated only with ladies of leisure, massage has become an integral part of training for many athletes. Two important benefits of massage include increased flexibility and reduced pain. And, after a hard day's workout, massage can also provide a sense of relaxation. Some of the techniques used to massage athletes include:

  • Effleurage—vigorous muscle stroking
  • Petrissage—kneading and rolling of the muscle
  • Tapotement—rapid striking of the muscle
  • Compression—pressure applied over a broad area by pushing down on the muscles with the open palm of the hand
  • Trigger point therapy—concentrated finger pressure applied to trigger points to relieve the tension in the surrounding area

Trigger points are irritable spots in a muscle that cause pain. They are sometimes referred to as knots.

Not Just a One Shot Deal

Massage is most effective as part of an athlete's total training program, which includes a healthful diet, adequate hydration, proper stretching, and well-designed workouts. Sporadic, post-event massage, such as that available after marathons, does not have much physiological benefit. Studies have shown that light exercise—a brisk walk or easy jog—not a one-time massage, is the best way to speed recovery after a strenuous event.

Do Not Touch

There are situations in which massage would not be appropriate. These include:

Recent injury—athletes should wait until swelling has subsided and bad bruises have healed—about 2-3 days after injury—before receiving massage.

Circulatory problems—Athletes who suffer from phlebitis or other circulatory disorders have very fragile veins that can be easily damaged by the direct pressure of massage therapy.

Skin conditions—Athletes should wait until open wounds or contagious skin conditions are resolved before receiving massage.

Bone injury—Massage is contraindicated in patients with significant trauma to the bones or joints, such as fracture or dislocation.

Other conditions—Athletes with infectious diseases and other conditions may require a gentler form of massage, or may not be able to tolerate treatment at all. In these cases, check with your physician first.

Is Massage for You?

From soothing tired muscles to calming an overworked mind, massage is a potentially useful addition to any athlete's training program.

If you decide to try sports massage, consider this:

  • The therapist will need to know about your current and past medical conditions and exercise routines.
  • You will need to undress to a level you feel comfortable with and lie down on a padded table with a sheet draped over your body. The therapist will undrape only the part of your body being massaged.
  • Do not be discouraged if you do not leave your first session feeling completely loose and pain free. It may take several visits before you feel the benefits.
  • The cost of a massage varies depending on locality, experience of the therapist, and type of massage. Do your research.
  • Some insurance plans will cover the cost of a massage that is prescribed by your primary care physician and administered by a licensed therapist. Therefore, it is best to choose a licensed practitioner or get a referral from your doctor. You may need to try out several therapists to find the best one for you.

RESOURCES:

The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA)
http://www.amtamassage.org

National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine
http://nccam.nih.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Health Canada
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

Massage Therapy
http://www.massage.ca

References:

Alvarez D, Rockwell P. Trigger points: diagnosis and management. Am Fam Physician. 2002 Feb 15;65(4):653-661.

Benefits of massage therapy. Freemont College website. Available at: http://www.fremont.edu/2011/04/benefits-of-massage-therapy-for-athletes/. Accessed March 7, 2013.

Cafarelli E, Flint F. The role of massage in preparation for and recovery from exercise: an overview. Sports Medicine. 1992;14:1-9.

Callaghan MJ. The role of massage in the management of the athlete: a review. Brit J Sports Med. 1993;27:28-33.

Massage. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com. Updated July 2012. Accessed March 7, 2013.

Massage therapy: an introduction. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/massage/massageintroduction.htm. Updated August 2010. Accessed March 7, 2013.

Tiidus PM. Manual massage and recovery of muscle function following exercise: a literature review. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 1997;25:107-112.

Tiidus PM, Shoemaker JK. Effleurage massage, muscle blood flow and long-term post-exercise strength recovery. Inter J Sports Med. 1995;16:478-483.

Rodenburg JB, Steenbeek D, Schiereck P, Bar PR. Warm-up, stretching and massage diminish harmful effects of eccentric exercise. Inter J Sports Med. 1994;15:414-419.



Last reviewed March 2013 by Brian Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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