This study is revealing on more than one level.
First, it clearly documents for the first time that a specific anti-inflammatory process is triggered by massage, involving suppression of pro-inflammatory cytokines and stimulation of the mitochondria, which play a role in cellular repair. For the researchers and the New York Times writer reporting the story, that’s the bottom line.
But after reading it through twice, I find myself appalled at the protocol they used. Taking muscle biopsies on healthy people in order to understand a bodiliy mechanism goes against the grain for me. In essence, what’s being done is to intentionally injure the body in order to understand how it responds to injury. From my perspective, it’s a strange set of bioethics that considers this par for the course. I don’t like this when it’s done to animals and I don’t like it any better when it’s done to consenting humans.
Tiffany Field of the University of Miami Medical School, who is quoted in the article, has for decades been the acknowledged leader in massage research. She’s quite happy with the findings. Much as I would like to be, I find the method through which they were gained to override the benefits they represent.
Their experiment required having people exercise to exhaustion and undergo five incisions in their legs in order to obtain muscle tissue for analysis. Despite the hurdles, the scientists still managed to find 11 brave young male volunteers. The study was published in the Feb. 1 issue of Science Translational Medicine.
On a first visit, they biopsied one leg of each subject at rest. At a second session, they had them vigorously exercise on a stationary bicycle for more than an hour until they could go no further. Then they massaged one thigh of each subject for 10 minutes, leaving the other to recover on its own. Immediately after the massage, they biopsied the thigh muscle in each leg again. After allowing another two-and-a-half hours of rest, they did a third biopsy to track the process of muscle injury and repair.
Vigorous exercise causes tiny tears in muscle fibers, leading to an immune reaction — inflammation — as the body gets to work repairing the injured cells. So the researchers screened the tissue from the massaged and unmassaged legs to compare their repair processes, and find out what difference massage would make.
They found that massage reduced the production of compounds called cytokines, which play a critical role in inflammation. Massage also stimulated mitochondria, the tiny powerhouses inside cells that convert glucose into the energy essential for cell function and repair. “The bottom line is that there appears to be a suppression of pathways in inflammation and an increase in mitochondrial biogenesis,” helping the muscle adapt to the demands of increased exercise, said the senior author, Dr. Mark A. Tarnopolsky.