Rethinking Healthcare

Genes explain why massages relieve pain

Genes explain why massages relieve pain

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Massage therapy turns off the genes linked to inflammation while turning on those that promote healing, according to a study with 11 men and an intensive upright cycling session.

Scientists have sussed out the secret behind the healing power of massage.

The kneading eases sore muscles by turning off genes associated with inflammation… and turning on genes that help damaged muscles heal.

The discovery contradicts popular claims that massage squeezes lactic acid or waste products out of tired muscles, ScienceNOW explains, lending new medical cred to the practice.

Older studies have shown that a well-administered rub can reduce pain, but none have ever pinpointed how. So, a team led by Mark Tarnopolsky at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, sought out a physiologic and cellular basis for its effectiveness at easing pain.

  1. They subjected 11 young men to a grueling upright cycling session that left their muscles damaged and sore.
  2. A massage therapist massaged one of their legs 10 minutes after the workout.
  3. The researchers had taken 3 tissue samples from their quadriceps muscles: before the workout, 10 minutes after the massage, and 3 hours after the workout.
  4. Then they compared the genetic profiles of each sample.

They saw more indicators of cell repair and inflammation in the post-workout samples than in the pre-workout samples.

What’s more, the massaged legs had 30% more PGC-1alpha, a gene that helps mitochondria (the energy powerhouse of our cells, mitochondria turn food into energy). The massaged legs also had 3 times less NFkB, which turns on genes linked to inflammation.

Since massage suppresses the inflammation that follows exercise while promoting faster healing, massage therapy could potentially speed up recovery from muscle injury in athletes as well as promote healing in patients with musculoskeletal problems.

The study was published in Science Translational Medicine last week. Via ScienceNOW and the Buck Institute for Age Research.

Image by WealthOfHealth4 via Flickr

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure