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Effectiveness of sports massage, its misconceptions, and how to look for a therapist

Introduction and common misconceptions

If you have taken part in sports or am an avid gym member, you may be familiar with the sports massage therapist. These are qualified professionals who can handle a range of clients ranging from athletes to the general population. They also have a diverse skill-set where treatments could take place within a clinical setting or right before a sporting event. Their responsibility is to administer massage to help recovery, assist in the correction of dysfunctional movements, and other musculoskeletal issues.

However, it can be commonly mistaken that sports massage therapists are physiotherapists, this is not true. Though they share similar work environments, clienteles, and skills, physiotherapists are members of governing bodies like the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy and the Health and Care Professional Council where they have to abide by certain standards and principles. Sports massage in the UK is not governed by an official organisation but rather through voluntary membership at a professional body.

Effectiveness of sports massage

There are various reasons why an individual would use sports massage. The most being that it helps with tight muscles and nodules (commonly known as ‘knots’). However, despite the popular use and the long history of massage, recent literature shared contrasting evidence to its benefits. Regarding its use for sports performance, there is little evidence to support the use of massage to enhance sprint, jump, strength, and endurance performance (1, 2). Nonetheless, it has been implicated that there may be some small improvements in flexibility and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Furthermore, when included as part of a larger or combined intervention, it could reduce the performance differences between training sessions (3).

So far, it seems that massage is not an effective form of therapy. However, its uses are not strictly physical. Other studies investigated the effects of sports massage on psychological recovery. It is well documented that athletes or individuals that partake in strenuous exercise can benefit from massage as it reduces their perception of fatigue (4). Furthermore, slower and gentler techniques like the effleurage (superficial stroking of the muscle) can be relaxing for both the sporting and clinical population (5). Older adults may benefit from such relaxation techniques to possibly address their anxiety or depression with lasting effects between 14 and 24 weeks post-intervention (6).

Key points to take away

In short, if you are looking for a sports massage therapist, a good place to start is to check if they are a voluntary member of a professional body. Though this is optional, it’s good practice as they would need to follow certain principles. In addition, consider what your main reason is for having sports massage and understand that solely having the treatment would not typically fix dysfunctions. Ask for exercises which could work alongside the massage and if it’s beyond the scope of your sports massage therapist, they should refer you to a physiotherapist.

References

  1. Best T, Hunter R, Wilcox A, Haq F. Effectiveness of sports massage for recovery of skeletal muscle from strenuous exercise. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. 2008; 18(5): 446–60. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1097/jsm.0b013e31818837a1.
  2. Davis H, Alabed S, Chico T. Effect of sports massage on performance and recovery: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine. 2020; 6(1): e000614. Available from: https://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjsem-2019-000614.
  3. Jakeman J, Byrne C, Eston R. Efficacy of lower limb compression and combined treatment of manual massage and lower limb compression on symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage in women. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2010; 24(11): 3157–3165. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e4f80c.
  4. Hemmings, B. Sports massage and psychological regeneration. British Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation. 2000; 7(4): 184–188. Available from: https://doi.org/10.12968/bjtr.2000.7.4.13888.
  5. Harris M, Richards K. The physiological and psychological effects of slow‐stroke back massage and hand massage on relaxation in older people. Journal of Clinical Nursing. 2010; 19(7–8): 917–26. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2702.2009.03165.x.
  6. Klainin-Yobas P, Oo W, Suzanne Yew P, Lau Y. Effects of relaxation interventions on depression and anxiety among older adults: a systematic review. Aging and Mental Health. 2015; 19(12): 1043–55. https://doi.org/10.1080/13607863.2014.997191.
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