Good Chemistry

Massage is a thing that feels good. It’s a healing thing. When your muscles hurt, you rub them. Little kids do it, construction workers do it, Olympians and dentists and grandparents – it defies categories. We all have muscles, they all hurt sometimes and when they do we all, instinctively, turn to massage to stop the pain. Ah massage. The Great Uniter.

Wait, what was that? Massage is just for bridesmaids? Massage is something you only get when you’re in Hawaii?  Massage is for people who smell like patchouli? But, didn’t I just see you rubbing your temples to relieve the pain your clenched jaw brought on at the mention of patchouli? You don’t rub your muscles when they hurt?


Of course you do, but that doesn’t mean you feel okay about getting a massage. Because what we also all have in common is a giant, tricky brain. Our brain wants to make sure we aren’t in danger – and who can blame it? –  but it’s hard for it to decide which is more dangerous: sore muscles or the threat of looking weak. And if massage just feels good, if the people who get it are just indulging a desire to experience pleasant things, then it isn’t for strong people. Strong people don’t do things simply because they feel nice. Strong people wear clothes made out of canvas and thorns and sleep on newly hewn logs. Outside. In the snow. They never pet kittens. They hate rainbows. Strong people don’t get massage. Strong people take Advil and possibly cry a little at night, but only when they’re alone. Oh, strong people. It just makes me want to swaddle you in flannel and baby lambs.

healed by lambs

But here’s the good news for our brains: Massage doesn’t just feel good – it actually heals you! Science says so! Massage is like medicine, and you’re allowed to take medicine. Say you are a giant heavyweight boulder-heaver who moonlights as a tugboat on the Hudson and you get strep throat.  You take penicillin to get rid of it, right? There’s nothing weak about that.  You have to take it because science says so. Well now science says you have to get massage. Sort of. Here, I’ll tell you all about it.


A smart fellow named Mark Tarnopolsky at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada came up with a very tough and rugged way to make massage completely un-fun and grueling and see if it could work anyhow. He rounded up a bunch of adult male humans and explained to them that he would like to cut out many little bits of their thighs over and over, and would they mind. Because they were so tough they said – heck, no we wouldn’t mind. One was so tough he offered to rip the bits out with his own teeth (I made that up). So cut Dr. Tarnopolsky did. At their first meeting he cut out the small chunks of thigh he would use as a control, five from each boy, and then they made a date to come back and be cut up more. This time, though, they each got to ride a stationary bike to exhaustion before being cut and then had five muscle morsels taken from both thighs. Now is where the massage comes in! Each boy got ten minutes of massage on one thigh – there’s no mention of whether soothing music was played or candles of any kind were lit, but I’m guessing they were. Dr. T just seems like the type, don’t you think? Then more cutting. Five more bits from each thigh. Then 2.5 hours of resting (sissies) and then one final round of cutting. Ahhhh. Spa day!

So, after all that pampering here’s what science found. The muscle samples taken from the massaged leg showed a marked decrease in a compound called cytokines, which play a big role in inflammation. So massage worked kind of like Advil, but easier on the kidneys. Unlike Advil, massage also stimulated mitochondria, which converts glucose into energy essential for cell function and repair. Maybe it was just the cucumbers they laid on their eyelids, but it seems massage functioned at a cellular level to chemically speed healing of the sampled tissue. Gnarly, dude.

more science

In another, less rugged study conducted at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, researchers gathered up a group of gentler souls. Into these mild mannered participants they inserted a large needle through which they could collect a series of blood samples while the sweet dears received 45 minutes of massage. These people were obviously all pansies, compared to the people in the other study. A needle. Please. If they had been strong people they would have just sliced their forearm open with an army knife and bled into a bucket during the massage. But still, they did the study so I guess we can at least look at what they found.

Participants showed decreases in their levels of cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormone, which stimulates the production of cortisol. You remember cortisol, the stress chemical that when chronically elevated brings you such delightful effects as:

  • Impaired cognitive performance
  • Blood sugar imbalances
  • Decreased bone density
  • Decrease in muscle tissue
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Lowered immune function including slowed wound healing

and the always popular

  • Increased abdominal fat

Cover your eyes for this sentence toughs – massage also dramatically reduced the production of Arginine Vasopressin, which is a hormone linked to aggression. But it increased the production of lymphocytes, which are a collection of immune cells including Natural Killer cells (for real!)!!! Natural Killer cells target tumors and cells altered by viruses – they’re like tumor fighting ninjas, basically. What’s tougher than that?!

not this guy

Phew, that was a lot of science! Let’s sum up then, shall we? The main points here are:

  1. Massage doesn’t just feel good for you, it IS good for you
  2. People have had many bits of their thighs not to mention blood removed to prove this using science
  3. There are ninjas in your blood (no there aren’t)

So be strong my little lambs and go find a massage table to lie down on. I’ve got one here. I’m happy to massage out your chemistry any time.

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