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Massage Therapy

The Role of Massage Therapy in Rehabilitation

As research continues to evolve, more people are discovering the benefits massage can offer during rehabilitation—from athletes to infants to stroke survivors.

 November 1, 2023


When thinking about the general benefits of massage therapy—such as reduced muscle tension, improved circulation and relaxation—understanding how massage can be an integral component of a client’s rehabilitation process isn’t difficult.


“When you incorporate massage in recovery or rehabilitation, we are retraining and reengaging muscle memory, as well as the neurological pathways, to help the body heal properly from injury, surgery or trauma,” says Ashia Walker, owner and massage therapist at Reformation Massage & Bodywork.

More recently, massage therapy that is focused on rehabilitative outcomes has expanded from largely athletes and surgical patients—although these clients are still the majority—to include stroke patients, preterm infants and clients who have been paralyzed due to traumatic injury.

Many recent studies provide some evidence that suggests adding massage therapy to an individual’s rehabilitation plan can help improve outcomes. “The body is one machine with many different parts,” Walker says. “When a machine breaks down you need different tools to repair it. The approach for rehabilitation should be thought of in the same way. If everyone collaborates together, each specialist plays a part in the client’s total recovery.”

Massage for Athletics and Recovery

One of the most common ways massage therapy is used to help with rehabilitation is sports massage. Typically, sports massage targets specific muscles or groups of muscles and is meant to help athletes recover from exertion, prevent injury and increase flexibility.

A 2022 study1 explored the effects of massage and cold-water immersion after an exhaustive run on running economy and biomechanics. During the study, participants randomly received either massage, cold-water immersion, or passive rest (control) after performing an exhaustive interval running protocol and incremental treadmill test at 12-, 14- and 16-km per hour. The runners repeated the treadmill test 48 hours later.

The study found the massage group had significantly better recovery than the control group at 14-km per hour, as well as greater stride height and angle changes at 16-km per hour than the cold-water immersion group. These results suggest massage therapy may provide for faster recovery of running economics and running biometrics than either cold-water immersion or passive rest.

“I have worked with countless clients who have sought me out as a last resort when dealing with aches and pains, chronic issues resulting from injuries and postoperative limitations,” says Cindy Bradsfield, LMT, owner of Mamassage Medical & Spa Massage Therapy. “Although I strongly feel every health care professional has a place in this world when dealing with client care, oftentimes I have witnessed clients being directed to professions that do very little for them because they are treating the symptoms as opposed to the catalyst of many of their issues and concerns.”

Dealing with the root cause versus just relieving symptoms is a cornerstone of the potential benefits of massage therapy.

After a thorough intake to discuss problem areas, Bradsfield begins the massage sessions through the sheet with compressions to help warm the tissues and achieve hands-on feedback through palpation. Range of motion, as well as functional and strength issues, are then assessed.

“Next, I undrape the area to be addressed and, if warranted, begin with myofascial work. Otherwise I use Swedish techniques to warm up the tissues,” she explains. “I utilize forearm and elbow work, pin and stretch techniques, trigger point therapy, range of motion exercises, contract/relax exercises, and assisted and passive stretching.” She then finishes the session with light tapotement and lymphatic techniques.

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