Massage probably goes as far back in history as the existence of man. It is something that we all do instinctively; apes grooming each other, animals licking their wounds and people rubbing an aching joint are all using massage. It is probably the oldest form of medical treatment and has been used throughout history by all cultures.

Massage principally works through the various body systems in one of two ways – a mechanical action and a reflex action.

A mechanical action is one created by physically moving the muscles and soft tissues of the body. The therapist moves the tissues using pressure and stretching movements and thereby creates a host of physiological changes from increasing circulation and cleansing the tissues of metabolic waste to increasing tissue pliability through spreading and lengthening muscle fibres.

A reflex action is an involuntary response to a specific stimulus. This is created when treatment of one part of the body affects another part. It is for this reason that you can massage a person’s lower back and alleviate pain in their legs or massage a person’s neck and shoulders to alleviate a headache. Massage can be broken down into two groups – relaxation massage (non specific) or sports massage (specific).

Relaxation Massage (non specific)

The aim of relaxation massage is to bring about non-specific mechanical and reflex effects. It is most widely used by general body massage therapists, nurses and complementary therapists. The emphasis of relaxation (non-specific) massage is on general enhancement and improvement of physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

Physical Effects

  • Blood and Lymphatic Circulation – Accelerates blood flow and hastens venous return and lymphatic flow.
  • Tissue Integrity – Loosens, stretches, spreads and lengthens muscle fibres breaking down any fibrous matting and therefore increasing tissue movement, pliability, circulation and integrity.
  • Sensory Perception and Stimulation – Positive effects on sensory perception, calming receptor excitability and interrupting pain pathways.
  • Neuroendocrine Functioning – Together the nervous and endocrine systems co-ordinate functions of all body systems. Massage has a positive effect on neuroendocrine functioning when there is an imbalance in autonomic nervous functioning – reducing physiological distress.
  • Energy Fields – Stimulates meridians through pressure and touch and encourages the physical flow of stagnant energy.

Psychological Effects

  • It could be argued that the greatest benefit of relaxation massage is the psychological response it elicits. This is because not only does a positive mental attitude lead to healthy physiological functioning but also because a positive mental attitude leads us to be positive with ourselves and our lives.

Sports Massage (specific)

  • The aim of sports (specific) massage is to bring about a specific effect. It is most widely employed by Physiotherapists, Osteopaths and Sports Massage Therapists. The emphasis is aimed at correcting and balancing soft tissue integrity and creating traction between the skin and tissues below it.
  • Sports massage should play a very important part in any athlete’s training programme alongside warming up and cooling down. Through massage we can remove the build up of general aches and pains that most sports people tend to accept. The therapist can use his/her hands to explore tissues, find these problems and deal with them accordingly. This will not only help to improve performance and endurance but also prevent injuries and loss of joint mobility in potential trouble spots.

Physical Effects

  • Pumping – stroking movements made along the flow of lymph and venous systems aid in their circulation as well as creating a vacuum behind it bringing in new blood with oxygen and other substances that are essential for repair and growth.
  • Increased Tissue Permeability – Deep massage causes the pores in tissue membranes to open, facilitating the exchange of fluids. This improves the removal of waste products such as lactic acid allowing muscles to absorb the very rich, oxygenated nutrients which are needed to repair and build up tissue following training.
  • Stretching – During massage, the muscle bundles are stretched longitudinally and transversely, thus improving circulation and breaking possible sticky adhesions between bundles.
  • Breaking Down Scar Tissue – Deep friction massage will help return normal tissue tension by breaking down scar tissue and adhesions.
  • Improved Tissue Elasticity – Soft tissue can be pulled near to its maximal length and reclaim normal elasticity while under stress in certain positions.
  • Opening Micro Circulation – Increases the blood flow to the smaller blood vessels.

Physiological Effects

  • Pain Reduction – Massage reduces pain caused by build up of metabolic waste products and tight fascia through an increase in circulation and stretching. Massage can also blot out pain sensations in the brain, reducing pain and muscle tension.
  • Relaxation – Relaxation of muscles can be achieved through warmth, increased circulation and stretching.
  • Balancing Autonomous Nervous System – Through massage, we reduce muscle tension and nullify pain due to musculo-skeletal disorders. In some cases, this will improve relaxation and sleep after strenuous exercise.

Psychological Effects

  • Invigorating Feeling – During pre-sport massage when the movements are quick and stimulating, the athlete will have a feeling of warmth and readiness to perform.
  • Reduces Anxiety – Massage can relieve anxiety before and after an event.
  • Confidence in Therapist – A relaxed client who is comfortable with their massage therapist will have relaxed muscles meaning massage will be more effective.
  • Placebo – Sports people are always looking for something that will give them the edge. By understanding the positive effects of massage they know that it will help them before, during and after the event.

Sports Massage Therapy

Most sports people find that participation alone, as well as winning events, helps them to achieve self-confidence and increases the sense of well-being and the quality of their lives. To this end, it is important that if the athlete would like to take measures to prevent injury and for when injuries occur – even minor ones – trained medical help should be readily available. This is where the role of the Sports Massage Therapist comes in.

Sports Massage Therapists are trained specifically to prevent, recognise and treat minor soft tissue injuries related to sport. They have a thorough knowledge of functional anatomy, physiology and kinesiology that gives them a true understanding of the mechanics and stresses involved in various sports and activities which may lead to injury. They also understand the complexities of deep tissue massage, safe exercise prescription and the progressions of specific rehabilitation programmes.

Most importantly, they are continually reminding themselves to take every conceivable precaution in order to avoid unnecessary injury (as a possible consequence of bad habits) now and in the future.