The effects of sports massage

Sports massage elicits a number of effects which can be categorised as physical, psychological, physiological and neurological.

Physical effects

A physical effect can be defined as a mechanical change that happens to a structure being massaged. Physical effects are likely to occur to more external structures of the body where massage is directly applied.

Examples of physical effects include:

– Improved flow of fluids (e.g. blood and lymph) due to the mechanical pumping and squeezing action of massage techniques.

– Stretching of soft tissues in a longitudinal or transverse direction which can assist in tissue mobility and the linear formation of tissue during healing.

– Separation of muscles or connective tissue fibres that have become stuck to one another (reduced adhesions).

 

Psychological effects

A psychological effect is a change of state of mind, perception or mood. These effects may be less tangible than other effects, but no less important. The psychological effects of sports massage can depend on the initial mood or mental state of the client, their expectations, the type of massage given and the physiological and neurological effects. For example, an invigorating massage can increase mental alertness and prepare a client for upcoming activity. General anxiety can be reduced by an invigorating or relaxing massage because it can help to reduce muscular tension as well as offering another temporary focus for the mind. The placebo effect of a massage can also elicit significant psychological and physiological changes. Some one who has a high positive expectation, as well as high levels of confidence in the therapist and the method, is likely to experience increased positive effects following a massage compared to someone who is more sceptical.

 

Physiological and neurological effects

A physiological effect is a change that occurs to internal body processes as a result of the massage. Neurological effects are changes which occur in the nervous system and as such are very closely linked with any physiological effects. Physiological or neurological effects depend on the type of massage experienced. A slow relaxing massage would initiate a parasympathetic response, whereas a quick, invigorating massage may initiate a sympathetic response. In most instances, a parasympathetic response would be beneficial, but during a pre-event massage, the therapist would be looking to elicit a sympathetic response to prepare the client for the upcoming activity.

Examples of parasympathetic effects include:

– Vasodilation of blood and lymphatic vessels as smooth muscle relaxes.

– Reduced neural stimulation (contraction) of muscles as skeletal muscles relax.

– Reduced production of sympathetic (‘stress’) hormones.

– Reduced heart rate and blood pressure.

 

Systemic effects

Although effects can be categorised as physical, physiological, neurological or psychological, it is likely that any systemic effects caused by massage will fall into multiple categories (e.g. physical and psychological).

 

Effects of sports massage on the skin

As soft tissues are physically mobilised, skin elasticity will improve and exfoliation of superficial cells will occur. Vasodilation of surface capillaries will provide an increased supply of nutrients and oxygen to the reproductive layers of the skin. This will present as erythema (reddening of the skin). Sebaceous glands are also stimulated, increasing oil production and lessening the risk of dry cracked skin.

 

Effects of massage on the lymphatic systems

Superficial and deep massage strokes which physically manipulate the skin, fascia and muscle will help to improve lymphatic circulation and drainage. This will increase the removal of metabolic waste from tissues. The increased speed of lymph flow through the vessels and the lymph nodes will stimulate lymphocyte production, therefore improving the ability of the body to prevent and fight infection.

 

Effects of massage on the neuroendocrine system

Sympathetic or parasympathetic responses will be stimulated by a particular type of massage (relaxing or invigorating). The nervous system will then pass on the appropriate stimulations to other systems to elicit either a parasympathetic or sympathetic response, including the endocrine glands which will produce hormones to rebalance the autonomic nervous system.

The reduction of tension in soft tissues and removal of metabolic wastes will reduce the potential causes of irritation to nerve endings. This may lead to reduced perception of pain or discomfort, particularly in tight or recovering tissues. Massage can also help to reduce the perception of pain by utilising the concept of the pain gate theory.

 

The pain gate theory

The pain gate theory suggests that there are inhibitory neurons at the level of the spinal cord, ‘the gate’ which can be stimulated to ‘close the gate’, therefore slowing, reducing or preventing pain signals reaching the brain. The types of impulses that can ‘close the gate’ are non-nociceptive, meaning they do not transmit pain signals, e.g. pressure, temperature, touch or vibration.

The theory suggests that this is why we instinctively rub an area when it is hurt. We are creating impulses which will close the gate and prevent the painful signals reaching the brain; as a consequence, we feel less pain. Massage techniques include the application of touch, pressure and vibration. As a consequence of massage, the tissue temperature will increase. These are all sensations which are hypothesised to close the pain gate.

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