The Application and Benefits of Activity Massage

Activity Massage uses skilled manipulation of soft tissues and utilises a specific set of techniques to assist with body maintenance, recovery and prevention of problems. The beneficial effects of massage start with its positive influence on the muscular and soft tissues of the body, improving circulation of blood and lymph fluids. It is widely accepted that massage can help to speed up recovery in between training sessions and signpost potential stresses or injury as well as supporting faster rehabilitation to sustained injuries. It is not, however, purely a physical experience and massage may also provide a means of relaxation and stress relief, promoting mental well-being and stimulating the senses.

Massage provides four complex bodily responses which work together to provide an effective and holistic complementary therapy for the client. These responses are discussed below:

Mechanical: This response is the result of movement and pressure applied during massage onto the soft tissues. Lymphatic and venous circulation is stimulated and soft tissues can be stretched and manipulated. An example of this occurs when joint swelling (oedema) that has occurred through injury is manipulated using mechanical techniques to mobilise the fluids into the lymphatic system and thus reducing the swelling. A skilled therapist will use a variety of manual techniques to achieve the optimal result for a particular issue presented by each individual client. In addition to the personal ‘hands on’ approach there are also machines available that will emulate the effects of massage such as the G5 which comes with a variety of attachments to mimic different massage techniques.

Physiological: This aspect of massage is the body’s reaction to the techniques used by the masseur. One of the typical physiological responses include erythema, in which the skin reddens as blood circulation to the area being massaged is increased. General stiffness of muscles and tension, muscle spasms and muscular-skeletal problems are may be decreased as tissue elasticity is enhanced. It can be noted that not everyone agrees on the physiological benefits of activity massage. One case study carried out by Hemmings et al argues that ‘despite massage being widely used by athletes, little scientific evidence exists to confirm the efficacy of massage for promoting both physiological (and psychological) recovery after exercise and massage effects on performance.’
Their findings seem to indicate that while massage remains a popular recovery technique its physiological benefits are still uncertain, further research is necessary to confirm the benefits from a scientific point of view.

Neurological: The central nervous system is part of the communication system that connects the body to the brain and controls bodily movement. During massage messages are sent to the brain via the central nervous system. These can have either a calming or stimulating effect on the person’s state of mind depending on the type of massage, for example using fast repetitive techniques to create stimulus and slow rhythmic strokes to induce relaxation. The length of time that massage is given may also affect the neurological response.

Psychological: This is the effect that massage can have on a recipient’s state of mind. Mills et al (2004) suggest that some of the psychological responses induced by massage include pain, anxiety and tension reduction, relaxation and stimulation and assistance with preparation for forthcoming challenges. An example of the latter would be an athlete receiving a stimulating massage before an event to help focus the mind and prepare the muscles for action in addition to normal warming-up procedures.

Massage utilises a wide variety of techniques to provide an effective treatment tailored to the individual depending on their requirements. A therapist will take in account the specific purpose of the massage, i.e. whether it is to be a maintenance massage in-between training sessions, a pre-event warm-up or a post-event massage to check for injury and to relieve stresses, strains and possible build up of toxins in the muscles caused by exertion.

The next part of the report will review four of the main basic techniques and explain how they are applied and their specific uses and benefits they can bring.

Effleurage: Its core use is as a preparatory and concluding stroke but is also employed as a connecting stroke to maintain contact before changing onto another phase of the massage, usually a different kind of manipulation. It can be a soothing technique and is beneficial to connect the therapist to the client, thus establishing a level of trust that enables muscle relaxation and allowing for deeper techniques to work more effectively during the treatment. Effleurage can be sub-divided into two types – deep and superficial.
Superficial effleurage consists of using both hands to perform a light stroking movement using evenly applied pressure that moulds to the contours of the body. It warms the skin and may induce relaxation. Due to its slightly firmer upward movements towards the heart it can stimulate lymphatic drainage and increase blood flow.

Deep effleurage uses the same technical movement but the depth of pressure is greatly increased. It can also be performed at a faster rate to provide a more stimulating effect on both the body and the mind.

Petrissage: Deriving from the French word petris which means ‘to knead’, petrissage aims to adjust the tension in the muscle, relieve spasms and reduce fatigue and is a detailed technique using a variety of hand movements to achieve the desired level of stimulation in relation to the needs of the client. The main types of petrissage are kneading, knuckling, wringing, broadening, pumping, skin rolling and thumb sliding. All parts of the hand can be used when performing petrissage and the skin being massaged can be lifted, pressed and rolled in many varied sequences. Pressure can be light or heavy depending on the area being massaged, for example greater care would be taken when working over bony areas as these are more sensitive to deeper treatment. Mitchell (1997) suggests that finger sensitivity in the massager can be improved by the giving of petrissage and this may have the effect of improving technique the more it is practised.

Friction: There are numerous techniques for performing friction massage but the basic principle is that superficial tissues are rubbed against deeper tissues to generate heat and encourage elasticity. It is commonly used as a post-event therapy for it provides a deep tissue massage purported to relieve tired or sore muscles. Unlike other techniques it is most effective when used without a lubricant upon the skin as the treatment tends to be localised over a small area, typically less than 2cm of skin. The potential benefits of applied friction techniques include repair of injured tissues, breaking up of scar tissue and realigning of muscle fibres. The actual hand movements employed in this type of massage include pincer-like gripping between thumb and fingers and reinforced fingers or thumbs.

Trigger Pointing: Trigger points are nodules in the muscle fibres that send out ‘referred’ pain to a different part of the body. An individual may have many trigger points throughout their body and this is known as myofacial pain syndrome. Trigger pointing is a massage therapy technique that was developed by Dr Janet Travell (1901-1997) who pioneered numerous techniques for dealing with chronic pain. It involves the application of pressure to a tender muscle tissue point in order to relieve pain and dysfunction to a ‘satellite’ area of pain elsewhere on the body. There are several techniques employed to evoke trigger point responses. A typical method involves finding a nodule then applying pressure upon it with the thumb or fingers until a pain level of 7 is reached by the client on a scale of 1-10, the area is then palpated for 1 – 2 minutes to ease the tenderness of the nodule. An example of its beneficial use would be on someone who has the medical condition fibromyalgia. Sufferers of this have chronic myofacial pain and trigger point techniques have been shown to facilitate improvements in pain reduction. Vecchiet et al (1999) provide a full report of their findings on this subject and gives further reading to present the case for trigger pointing and its benefits. Its medicinal use in this instance also shows that it is not just in a sports environment that activity massage can be advantageous.

In conclusion it can be said that while massage itself has been in existence for thousands of years across the globe as an aid to relaxation, its measurable benefits have remained ambiguous. It is only in recent years with the development of sophisticated scientific methods and resources to increase knowledge of the subject that the full range of benefits and effects, particularly in reference to activity or sports massage, can be assessed. It currently continues to manifest itself as a growth area in scientific and medical research and through general use and practice by professionals.

Dyson, R. Graydon, J. Hemmings, B. Smith, M. (2000). Effects of Massage on Physiological Restoration, Perceived Recovery and Repeated Sports Performance. British Journal of Sports Medicine. Vol 34 (Issue 2), p109-114.
Mills, R. Parker-Bennett, S. (2004). Defining Sports Massage. Sports Massage. p10
Mitchell, A. (1999). Petrissage. The Complete Illustrated Guide to Massage. p74.
Vecchiet, L. Giamberardino, A.. (1999). Muscle Pain, Myofacial Pain and Fibromyalgia: Recent Advances. Journal of Musculoskeletal Pain. Vol 7 (Issue 1/2).