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Can Sports Massage Reduce Swelling?

It’s a common misconception that only professional athletes and generally active people need sports massages but that isn’t true, as even people with sedentary lifestyles need them.

So, even if you sit at your desk all day or don’t exercise at all, you can still benefit from getting a sports massage, as it helps to release muscle tension and improve your flexibility.

Exercise recovery is very important if you want to be at your optimum best at all times, especially if you are active, which is why you need sports massages. Regular sports massages are crucial for fitness enthusiasts and athletes because it helps with exercise recovery, pain relief, and injury prevention.

There are a number of other benefits of getting a sports massage but this article is focused on discussing how sports massages help to reduce swelling and inflammation with scientific research to back it up. Before we get to that, let’s discuss what exactly a sports massage is.

What is a Sports Massage?

Sports massage therapy is a specific form of sports tissue manipulation that focuses on areas of the body that are strained from continuous use. Sports massage therapists use this massage method to loosen muscles and connective tissues, enabling you to be more flexible and recover fast after each activity with fewer injuries.  Sports massage is effective in relieving muscle tension, aches and pains, and it is also beneficial to those that have undergone surgery or sustained any injuries. Plus, there are different types of sports massage therapy, which are all associated with timing, with each of them having its distinct benefits.

Post-event sports massages are important especially to speed up recovery time and relieve inflammation and soreness that occur after every exercise or sporting event. Training sports massages are usually scheduled between training sessions to reduce swelling from tense muscles, enabling them to heal quickly. Pre-event sports massages are done before an event or as an exercise warm-up to prevent muscle strain and injury during the event. Additionally, sports massage therapists carry out sports massage for rehabilitation and injury to help reduce pain, help in recovery, reduce inflammation, and prevent re-injury.

If you are interested in sports massage read our detailed beginners’ guide.

How Sports Massages Reduce Swelling

One major benefit of sports massage is that it reduces swelling and inflammation, which happen as a result of muscle strain, injury or surgery. In any of these cases, the flow of blood, blood protein, white blood cells, and fluids increases in the area of the trauma causing severe inflammation and swelling. Another way swelling can occur in the body is by a blockage in the lymphatic system and this occurs commonly after surgery. Most times, the inflamed areas are painful to touch and can restrict movement in the body, which is why sports massages are needed to reduce the pain and speed up the healing process.

Sports massage therapists use different techniques to clear the lymphatic system and improve healing. By applying a range of pressures to the muscular tissue, they warm up the muscles and stretch the tissues, thereby reducing the pain and aches caused by the inflammation. Sports massages enable blood to flow freely around the area of strain or injury by reducing blockages in the area. This method of massage ensures the efficient removal of metabolic waste from the body and an increase in nutrient and oxygen circulation, aiding in the reduction of swelling.

Sports Massage Techniques Used to Reduce Swelling

There are many sports massage techniques that exist but the ones commonly used to reduce swelling are highlighted below.

  • Lymphatic Drainage

Lymphatic drainage is a gentle massage technique that involves using specific, pumping strokes to stimulate lymphatic flow, reduce edema and decrease swelling caused by lymph blockage and fluid retention. This massage technique helps to remove toxins from the system and increases blood circulation in the veins. Sports massage therapists use this method to reduce pain and swelling caused by surgery or pain, aiding in speeding up the healing process. Besides, with this technique, the metabolic wastes are picked up by the lymph flow and removed through the glands, particularly the sweat glands.

  • Effleurage (Stroking)

This technique has a very relaxing effect on clients, and it is commonly used by massage therapists to reduce swelling. Sports massage therapists use this stroking technique to warm up the tissues and stimulate the body, and it entails applying soft pressure to the injured area. The effleurage technique enables tender inflamed areas to be treated without causing too much pain, as it pushes excess fluids gently within the swelling towards multiple glands located in different parts of the body like the groin and armpit. Plus, this process enhances the removal of excess fluids from the body, consequently reducing swelling.

  • Deep Strokes

Just like the stroking technique, deep stroking involves using flat hands to massage the inflamed areas but unlike the former, the latter entails using firmer pressure. Sports massage therapists use the deep strokes technique to massage deeper into the muscles. However, this technique is only good for swelling that is no longer tender and has occurred for a long period because firm pressure to tender areas will cause intense pain.

The firm pressure associated with this technique enables therapists to dive deep within the muscles and remove waste products and excess fluids from the inflamed area. The deep strokes technique is commonly used to stimulate lymph flow, enabling the effective movement of blood, oxygen, and nutrients. Besides, this process helps to repair damaged tissues, aiding in the reduction of swelling.

 

Benefits of Sports Massage to Inflammation Reduction

Sports massages are beneficial to reducing swelling in a number of situations especially after injury or surgery. Swelling or inflammation usually occurs after the injury as a result of waste product build-up in a bid to prevent the worsening of the injury. However, swelling increases pain, restricts movements and can hinder the healing process as the muscle will be strained and weak. Sports massages are beneficial in this situation as they stimulate the lymphatic system, enabling the transportation and removal of waste products out of the body. With these waste products removed, swelling will reduce, healing will increase, and muscle strength will improve.

With swelling caused post-surgery, the situation is a little different from swelling caused by injuries. Most times, scar tissue build-up blocking the lymphatic system causes swelling after surgery and this blockage results in lymphedema. Lymphedema hinders movements and increases pain in the area. Sports massages break down this scar tissue and unblock the lymphatic system, enabling the flow of blood and removal of waste products, resulting in reduced swelling, pain relief and decreased nerve compression. Let’s take a look at some of the other benefits of sports massage to swelling reduction, shall we?

  • Increased Blood Flow

During sports massages, the venous return, which is the blood flow rate back to the heart, increases, and this helps in reducing swelling. As stated earlier, metabolic wastes play a role in inflammation formation, and as blood flow increases, the removal of waste products from the system increases. This is because when these excess fluids and wastes are pushed into the lymphatic flow, they are transferred into the blood flow so they can be removed completely from the body. Therefore, the rate of blood flow to and from the heart contributes to how fast metabolic wastes can be removed from the body and removal of these wastes result in reduced swelling and inflammation.

  • Waste Products Removal

The lymphatic system is in charge of the removal of waste products and excess fluids from the body to improve recovery and prevent muscle strain. But when the system is blocked causing lymphedema, the waste products stay in the body and result in swelling and muscle weakness. Sports massages stimulate and help unblock the lymphatic system to enable the removal of waste products and fluids from the body, resulting in swelling reduction and improved muscle strength.

  • Increased Oxygen and Nutrient Exchange

Sports massages ensure that cellular exchanges occur, which involves exchanging metabolic wastes for oxygen and nutrients to reduce swelling. During the cellular exchange, the metabolic wastes are removed from the injury or trauma site, resulting in an increase in blood, nutrients and oxygen flow. Plus, the increased oxygen and nutrients aid in repairing damaged muscles, improving recovery, and reducing swelling.

What Does the Research Show?

A recent study published in the African education research journal showed the effects of deep and superficial techniques of sports massage on the indicators of muscle and inflammatory damage of young volleyball players after a session. The research involved 24 young volleyball players; 8 people in a deep massage group, 8 in a superficial massage group, and 8 in a control group, and the results showed that both deep and superficial sports massage techniques are effective in reducing inflammation and muscle strain after a rigorous exercise.

Another research carried out by the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, showed that sports massage therapy reduces inflammation of the skeletal muscle damaged acutely during exercise. This study involved dividing young male participants with muscle damage caused by exercise into two groups; some administered massage therapy and others were placed in a control group. They found evidence that sports massage therapy may affect swelling and inflammation in a similar way as anti-inflammatory drugs do at the cellular level. Plus, they found that “massage activated the mechanotransduction signaling pathways focal adhesion kinase (FAK) and extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1/2 (ERK1/2), potentiated mitochondrial biogenesis signaling [nuclear peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor γ co-activator 1α (PGC-1α)], and mitigated the rise in nuclear factor κB (NFκB) (p65) nuclear accumulation caused by exercise-induced muscle trauma.”

Dr. Krista Ingram in her Naturopathic and Massage perspective article stated that inflammation processes enable wounds to heal and that massage therapy helps to prevent inflammation from being prolonged or excessive. She stated that they help to improve circulation and flush out fluid build-up in the body, reducing inflammations.  While some of these studies support the claim that sports massage can help reduce swelling, other studies stated that there is little evidence that sports massages can directly improve performance and help with muscle recovery, but they help to increase DOMS and flexibility.

 

Limitations of the Research

Even though a number of research studies state that sports massages help with swelling, more investigation is needed to conclusively determine the effectiveness of sports massage in reducing swelling and inflammation. Besides, the limitations of the current research need to be considered. For example, each of the studies had a limited sample size, which is not significant enough to make a considerable claim. This proves that even though the results of the studies were positive, they were not significant enough to make a big scientific theory.

Other Benefits of Sports Massage

Apart from swelling reduction, there are other physical benefits of sports massage, and a number of them are highlighted below.

  • Breakdown of Lactic acid Build-up

The lactic acid build-up in the muscle is one of the causes of muscle tension and strain. This build-up occurs when the body has low oxygen levels causing knots to develop on the body. Sports massages help to target these trigger points and remove metabolic waste from the body, replacing it with oxygenation blood needed in that area.

  • Prevents Muscle Tightness

Limited access to oxygen during training or exercising can result in a strain in your muscle fibers, causing tears if not properly taken care of. Sports massages ensure the circulatory system is working at the optimum level to prevent the muscles from tightening.

  • Improves Circulation

Sports massages help to release knots and tensions in your body, increasing blood and lymph circulation in the body. These massages enable the removal of toxins from your body and improve the flow of blood to different parts of your body.

  • Enhances Relaxation

Sports massages enable you to relax properly as they decrease your cortisol levels and increase your dopamine and serotonin levels. Besides, getting this massage regularly will also ensure that your sleep quality improves.

  • Breakdown of Scar Tissue

Sports massages help to promote the breakdown of scar tissue which can cause muscle weakness and tightness. Plus, sports therapists use this massage method to promote the correct and healthy formation of scar tissue.