Updated: May 8, 2020
If you look on the internet, you'll find some bold claims about what massage will do. Removing toxins, halting delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), increasing range of movement by lengthening muscles, and realigning scar tissue to name but a few. So can it really do those things?
If you think about it, how can touching the skin remove toxins? How did they get in you in the first place? If you've been partying a bit too hard of late and you're feeling a bit rough because of it, then the best thing you can do to #detox is drink some water, have an early night and let your liver do its job. What massage will do in this case is make you feel more relaxed and possibly create a better environment in your cells for recovery to take place. But nobody is really sure about that.
What about DOMS? Well it's a physiological event, if you stress your muscles to the point of damage, which is a normal and necessary occurrence, then rubbing the skin won't make them recover or adapt any quicker. It may, however, make them feel less sore in the short term, via some complex mechanisms that aren't fully understood. The same is true of increasing range of movement at any given joint. Stretching a muscle or joint, either actively or passively, will increase your tolerance to stretch and allow you to stretch further with less discomfort. Especially if you do it regularly. But it doesn't add sarcomeres (the contractile unit in muscle cells).
Scar tissue then? When tissue is damaged and a scar forms to repair that damage, the collagen which does that is laid down in a disorganised fashion. As the integrity of the scar increases and healing is completed, that's pretty much the end product. Gentle massage of new scars is thought to help prevent adherence to underlying structures and there are certainly plenty of people who would testify to this. However, collagen will only organise into any kind of alignment if you load it in the direction it needs to be strong as it is still forming, and you do that by using your joint/limb/body part normally.
So why am I, a massage therapist, telling you that massage won't do all these things? Because I'm a curious kind of person, I like to know how things work and I question the things I am told or read about. Massage is a great treatment, it helps a lot of people in a lot of situations and how it does that is very poorly understood. But I don't think there's anything wrong in telling people that instead of making stuff up. It probably works on several different levels, from the sensory information of touch that your brain evaluates and responds to by altering muscular tension patterns, to the interaction with the therapist, who hopefully is informative and reassuring. But try not to overthink it next time you're getting a massage.