After a tough day at the job or a vigorous run, a massage is just what the doctor ordered. It helps muscles recover and reduces lingering pains. Athletes say that it keeps muscles from getting tight, eases inflammation, and improves the flow of blood, but not many people are aware of how it works, experts included. So let’s investigate some of the science behind the massage.
The Relaxation Response
Part of the good of the massage is involuntary, and it all starts with a touch. A gentle, caring touch signals the relaxation response in your body. The relaxation response refers to the state in which your breathing and heart rate slow down, your blood pressure declines, you stop producing stress hormones, and your muscles release tension. The response also increases levels of serotonin, the hormone responsible for regulating mood.
Essentially, the relaxation response is the complete opposite of being stressed out. It’s easier to elicit the response when you have a masseuse or loved one, but ergonomic modern leather recliners and massage chairs offer some of the same comfort.
Fascia is the connective tissue found throughout the body. It consists of a web of protein fibers that holds cells together while separating tissues and other structural components—muscles, tendons, ligaments, organs, and bones. The fascia generally provides the supportive framework for your entire internal structure. Unlike lizards, we don’t regenerate when we’re wounded. We repair, and the fascia is the material responsible for that. It repairs everything—broken bones, torn muscles, paper cuts, you name it.
However, fascia isn’t all good. When it gets a little too worked up, it tends to build up in muscle cavities, particularly the abdomen and pelvis. With too much physical trauma or inflammation, like that of overworked muscles, the fascia loses its pliability and constricts, causing pain and feelings of tightness. Stretching lengthens and loosens fascia, but the tensile strength of fascia often makes the stretching process difficult and slow.
Just Warming Up
Fascia has the interesting ability to change its state depending on activity levels and energy expended. When the connective tissue warms up, it becomes more fluid, almost liquid. When it cools down, it goes back to a viscous, jelly state. You can actually feel this process when you’re exercising. It’s why you feel a bit stiff and tight when you start, but as you warm up, you feel more comfortable and limber.
Massage does the same thing for fascia without the sweat band and tennis shoes. The massage therapist’s hands or your massage chair’s various settings add movement, heat, and energy to fascia, allowing it to move to a more comfortable state.
A massage is one of the best things you can do to promote healthy fascia, which in turn leads to better range of motion and loose muscles. If you can’t afford a massage, give your muscles a break. Purchase ergonomic furniture for your home and office like stressless chairs, practice good posture, and stretch whenever you have the opportunity.