Blog | Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Of mitochondria and muscle massages


It's always amused me that even though I have a medical education, there are many basic physiologic questions I can't answer:
--What is sneezing and how is it controlled?
--Why are yawns contagious?
--What makes you feel the need to stretch after you've been in one position for a while? For that matter, what causes that "stretching feeling" and the accompanying sound you hear in your head?
--How and why do knuckles crack?
--What causes muscle cramps and what the heck are they?

Well, this week, researchers announced they'd found an answer to one of the eternal questions: Why does massaging muscles make them feel so good?

And though it feels good, does it make any "real" difference at a molecular level in terms of what happens to the muscles?

How's this for a study design? Eleven men volunteered, and then, according to NPR's blog, Shots: "The men exercised hard, riding a stationary bike until they could ride no more. After that, one leg got a 10-minute massage. The researchers compared muscle cells from the two legs at a very deep level.

"They found that the massaged muscles produced fewer cytokines, proteins that can cause swelling and soreness. Those lucky muscles also made more new mitochondria, which produce energy in the body's cells."


Illustration by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal via Wikipedia, released into pubic domainMitochondria are the organelles (tiny organs in our body's cells) that make energy by using oxygen in a chemical reaction to create a chemical called ATP. As the basic storage unit of cellular energy, ATP is what at a macro level allows us to move, think, eat and dance (among other activities).

What goes unsaid in the description of the experiment above is that each man had to undergo not one but two muscle biospies, one for each leg to compare the massaged muscle to the non-massaged one.

That is not a pleasant prospect. But these men are apparently devoted to science. And apparently not deterred by pain.

No word on whether they were compensated for their time and tissue.

One other important discovery: massage did nothing to diminish the amount of lactic acid in the muscles. The idea that massage gets rid of it is bunk.

This post by John H. Schumann, FACP, originally appeared at GlassHospital. Dr. Schumann is a general internist. His blog, GlassHospital, seeks to bring transparency to medical practice and to improve the patient experience.