Massage might help those who can’t exercise, says UK research

An illness, an accident or even just getting older can limit a person’s ability to exercise. Rest is an essential component of healing, but it also atrophies muscles.

“People who are unable to exercise due to, for example, a recent surgery or illness, lose as much as 3 percent of their muscle mass per week,” said Esther Dupont-Versteegden of the UK College of Health Sciences. “That doesn’t sound like much, but it can make recovery much more difficult, especially for the elderly.”

Dupont-Versteegden and her College of Health Sciences colleague Tim Butterfield have been testing an inexpensive, noninvasive treatment that appears, in preliminary studies, to aid in the recovery of muscle mass and reduce muscle atrophy: massage.

“Our research proposes that massage may stave off atrophy, even if you aren’t able to get up and move around,” she says.

Massage mimics the effects of exercise

Proteins are the basic building blocks of all of the body’s tissues, especially muscle. The complicated metabolic process that turns protein into muscle, called protein synthesis, increases muscle cell size, which in turn strengthens muscle fibers. But one of the crucial ingredients for muscle growth is exercise.

“However, there are times and circumstances in which exercise is not possible, because of a severe illness or surgery, for example,” Dupont-Versteegden says.

According to Butterfield, it appears that massage mimics the effect of exercise by sending signals to the muscle to begin protein synthesis. And there’s perhaps an even more intriguing finding: Massaging one limb seems to confer benefits to its corresponding muscle on the other side as well.

“We’re not sure why yet, but if we could understand the mechanisms for this crossover effect, it could have real healing benefits for patients with wounds to one limb – for example, car accident victims or wounded soldiers,” Butterfield said.

Better health for Kentuckians of all ages

Their initial work is promising enough to earn a five-year, $2.1 million grant from the National Center for Complementary & Integrative Health. The research grant will further their study in conjunction with Benjamin Miller and Karyn Hamilton, both researchers at Colorado State University.

Dr. Scott Lephart, dean of the UK College of Health Sciences, says that Dupont-Versteegden’s and Butterfield’s work demonstrates how research can uncover new, cost-effective ways to improve health for Kentuckians of all ages.

“The loss of skeletal muscle mass and the inability to recover from atrophy are major contributors to disability and a major factor in the elderly’s loss of independence,” Lephart said. “This work exemplifies our college’s commitment to optimizing health for Kentuckians of all ages and beyond.”

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