Should You Massage Sore Muscles- When A Massage Is Worth It

should you massage sore muscles

Swimming is a good workout. Take it easy if you haven’t gone in a while. Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Have you ever tried to improve your health and overdone it? I think that if you want to start exercising or eating healthy, it is good to start out with some zeal. However, one of my close friends took it too far.

He wanted to do pool exercises since they seemed like a good way to ease into it. Unfortunately, he stayed in the pool for 4 hours! Besides turning into a prune,  he was so sore that he didn’t want to get out of the bed the next day. What could help him?

I’m a fan of massages (after all, I extol the benefits of massages in one post after another), but could they possibly help someone who was so debilitated? What could help my friend? Should you massage sore muscles?

In this post, I am going to explore whether massages can help sore muscles. First, we’ll look at some common causes of muscle soreness. Then, I’ll go into a little more detail about muscle soreness caused by exercise specifically and the most effective way to quickly reduce this pain. Then I’ll describe the type of muscle soreness that massage is most effective for.


Causes Of Muscle Soreness

Should you massage sore muscles

Regardless of the reason, muscle pain can be debilitating. Photo by Alex Boyd on Unsplash

Muscle pain can have a variety of causes. One of the most common causes of muscle pain is exercise. Just about anyone who has exercised has experiences delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) at some point in their life.

DOMS is the intense pain that occurs about a day after you do a workout. Even though it can be extremely painful (or at least in my experience it is), after about a week it goes away. DOMS is an example of temporary muscle pain.

Oftentimes medications and illnesses such as the flu can also cause temporary muscle pain.

People can also suffer from chronic muscle pain. Fibromyalgia is an example of a condition that causes chronic widespread muscle pain.

Serious autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis and lupus can also cause widespread pain throughout the body. Untreated tension from anxiety and depression can also cause long lasting muscle pain and aches.

Basically, there are a lot of things that can cause sore muscles. It is important to communicate with your doctor so that you can find the most appropriate treatments for your muscle pain.

For less serious causes, you may find that a massage is very helpful. Even if you suffer from a serious condition, a massage can serve as a complimentary therapy.

However, you really need to make sure that you have a full plan and medical support for something like an autoimmune disorder.

A Closer Look At Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

Should you massage sore muscles

Don’t let muscle soreness prevent you from working out. Photo by Ev on Unsplash

As previously stated, one of the most common causes of muscle pain is DOMS. People tend to experience DOMS after a workout.

Though DOMS is usually pretty mild, it can possibly be so intense that you feel like you can barely move. On the far extreme end, intense workouts can also potentially trigger a condition called rhabdomyolysis.

In rhabdomyolysis, there is a muscle breakdown. Damaged muscle fibers go into the bloodstream which can damage the kidneys. Thankfully, rhabdomyolysis is fairly rare.

However, if you have muscle pain along with dark urine, you should definitely be concerned about rhabdomyolysis.

DOMS is pretty painful, but it usually goes away after a week. One interesting thing about DOMS is that experts are not completely sure about what causes it. There are plenty of possible causes. According to an article from the School of Community Health and Sports Sciences, some of these are:

  • Structural damage to the muscle and connective tissue
  • Inflammation
  • Muscular remodeling
  • Muscle spasms

Chances are, in DOMS, more than one of these conditions are occuring. Most of the research that I have seen concerning massages and DOMS focuses on the inflammation aspect.

Though I have found some research that gives some degree of hope that massages can help DOMS, there needs to be much more research on the topic. Let’s take a look at what some of the research says about the effect of massages on DOMS.

What A Massage Can Do For DOMS

One study published in Science Transnational Medicine wanted to look at the effect of massages on inflammation after exercise. They recruited 11 young men. Each of the men performed exercises to  induce DOMS. They then got a massage in only one leg so that the researchers could compare the leg that got the massage and the leg that didn’t.

The researchers took a sample of muscle from the men before exercise, immediately after 10 minutes of a massage treatment, and after 2.5 hours of recovery (ouch)d. When the researchers looked at the muscle tissue under the microscope, they found that there was less inflammation in the leg that received the massage.

should you massage sore muscles

Can you massage the pain away? Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Even better, they found that the leg that got the massage had more mitochondria, cells that can aid in muscle recovery. This is important because many of the treatments for DOMS such as pain medication do not have this increase in mitochondria.

Even though this study does provide some hope that massages can help with muscle soreness, it doesn’t provide a definitive answer. The changes that occur in the body as a result of exercise are much more widespread than those produced from massage.

Paul Ingraham from PainScience.com points out “exercise changes cellular behavior, massage does not.”

DOMS likely doesn’t result from inflammation alone. So the changes that this research study illustrated are likely small compared to what it actually happening in the body (damage, inflammation, remodeling).

Another thing to consider is that, this study doesn’t focus very much on the pain aspect. It focuses on how massages affect inflammation.

Research that looks at the effect of massage therapy for DOMS pain is fairly inconclusive. Some studies have found that massages can at least help with the intensity of pain whereas others didn’t find much of a benefit at all.

Basically, there is some evidence that massages can produce a small therapeutic effect after exercise. However, it is unlikely that it will take away the pain from DOMS.

So, Should You Massage Sore Muscles After Exercise?

If you want to relieve the muscle soreness that you get after exercise, a massage will probably not be the cure.

Personally, massages have never really helped me when it comes to muscle soreness from exercise. However, some people may find a massage helpful despite what the research indicates. At the very least, it is correlated with a decrease in inflammation.

The only way to know for sure is to go out and give it a try for yourself. Massage therapists put out discounts all the time on Groupon and Living Social, so you don’t have to pay the full price only to be disappointed.

The Best Temporary Relief For DOMS

According to an article published on the National Institute of Health website, if you are suffering delayed onset muscle soreness, one of the best ways to relieve the pain is with more exercise. As terrible as it may sound, exercise can bring about some relief, even if it is only temporary. Just make sure that it is actually DOMS and not an injury.

So, don’t skip a workout if you have a mild case of DOMS. Just take it easy during your workout and you should see some temporary relief.

When A Massage Can Help Sore Muscles

Massages can be most useful for sore muscles if you have soreness from depression or anxiety. People with depression and anxiety don’t just experience mental anguish but are also prone to experience real physical pain such as muscle and joint soreness.

People who suffer from these conditions tend to hold tension in their bodies. In addition, depression and anxiety often have other things happening in the body which can cause pain, such as an increased autoimmune response.

According to a meta analysis of 37 different studies, massages are pretty effective at treating depression and anxiety. With time, it can also help relieve the pain caused from these conditions.


Should you massage sore muscles

Photo by lucas clarysse on Unsplash

In conclusion, there are many reasons why your muscles may be sore. Depending on the cause of your muscle soreness, a massage may or may not help with the pain.

If you have pain from exercise, a massage can help with the inflammation but it will most likely not heal your pain. The best way to temporarily relieve your pain from exercise is to continue exercising.

If your muscle pain is caused by depression or anxiety, you may feel some relief from a massage.

So, basically, there were no easy solutions for my friend from the introduction. He needed to just keep exercising so that he could get temporary relief and condition his muscles. Unfortunately, he actually did give up his routine and missed out on an opportunity to improve his health.

My hope is that this article showed you that, when it comes to exercise at least, the problem can also be the solution. If you feel sore after a workout, don’t let it prevent you from going to the gym again. Know that your workout had some effect on you and that if you continue to workout it will get better in time.

In the comments below, please share any experiences that you have had with muscle soreness. Has a massage ever helped you?

8 Comments
  1. Hi,

    Just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your post on should you massage sore muscles. While I personally don’t think a massage will relieve DOMS, I can attest that getting out and moving seems to speed up the recovery. I’ve had a couple of deep tissue massages and I felt sore the day after but they absolutely helped. Thanks for sharing.

    • I’m glad that the deep tissue massages helped for your sore muscles. It is so important to keep moving and not give up if you have DOMS. 

  2. Massages have helped me with temporary relief for my sore muscles but have not healed them. However, I just let it heal on its own after some exercise and it does. I should have probably continued to exercise after having sore muscles and it could have healed faster. I will give it a try the next time.

    • I am glad to hear that you have found some relief for your sore muscles from exercise. One thing to remember is that exercise more than likely won’t help you heal faster (If anything, you will experience more damage from it). However, it can help relieve your pain temporarily.

  3. I’m definitely with you on massaging for sore muscles or any muscle pain for that matter including cramping. My husband get ‘charlie horses’ as it’s known in the US. We call it restless leg syndrome in the UK.
    If he gets a bad bout of it I gently massage his calf muscles. It seems to hurt him at first but after a minute or two he gets relief and often falls asleep! The relief will usually last for the rest of the evening.
    It seems to be late in the day or at night that this syndrome is at its worst. Just when people want to relax and watch a bit of TV, it starts. Very irritating. Thanks for a great post.

    • Thank you, Ches, for sharing your experience. I am glad that you are able to help your husband with the power of massage.

  4. MASSAGES ABSOLUTELY help for Doms! I have been a licensed massage therapist for many years. I have NEVER had a problem getting people out of Pain! I have worked hard taking all kinds of classes to be one of the best in massages! It takes years of knowledge and a combination of different modalities to help people with chronic pain. I prefer to do customized massages! Personally I don’t do 1 type of massage ever On a client.

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