Sports Massage vs. Medical Massage: Unraveling the Science Behind the Techniques

Over three decades of practicing and teaching in the United States have led me to explore the definitions of medical massage. But in my search, I encountered various explanations that often lacked coherence. It seems that the context in which a specific massage protocol is performed determines whether it is deemed medical or not. For instance, if the massage is given in a hospital setting, it may be labeled medical massage, but if the same protocol is applied outside the hospital by the same practitioner, it loses its medical designation. Similarly, when a medical doctor prescribes massage, it is classified as medical massage, but if the exact same treatment is delivered at a regular massage provider's studio, it is no longer considered medical. It's puzzling, to say the least.

Nevertheless, massage, based on a science-backed methodology, has a documented history with its own distinct name. I did not invent the term "medical massage." Its roots trace back to the 19th century when British Physician Dr. Head introduced the concept of Head's zones. Professor Zabludovsly furthered our understanding by explaining the reflex effect on arterial circulation in non-massaged extremities, findings later confirmed by various experimental and clinical studies.

Another significant contributor to the medical massage landscape was Austrian physical therapist Elizabeth Dickle, who brought attention to the importance of tension build-up in connective tissue /fascia and its impact on chronic somatic and visceral abnormalities. Today, we recognize this as connective tissue massage or fascia release and mobilization, also known as Bidegewebsmassage.

The work of Prof. Sherback laid a fundamental foundation not only for medical massage but also for all massage therapies. Regardless of the disorder type, be it skeletal muscular or internal organ diseases, skin, fascia, and muscles undergo changes, leading to pain and localizations that persist regardless of compression skeletal muscular disorders. Diseases of internal organs can trigger changes in soft tissues, such as increased density of skin and tension within muscles and fascia, forming what is known as reflex zones abnormalities due to somatovisceral reflex. Treating these reflex zones abnormalities through massage brought significant health improvements to thousands of patients.

Drs. Glaser and Delixo contributed immensely by publishing segments reflex massage text in 1955, including over 30 maps of reflex zones abnormalities for individual internal organs diseases and skeletal muscular disorders. Their work, along with that of Prof. Sherback and Dr. Sarkisov Serazini, paved the way for over 60 medical and sports massage hands-on protocols.

Speaking of sports massage, it finds its origins in medical massage, not solely in its name but, more importantly, in its core concepts and clinical approach. This clinical application, widely used by Olympian teams, has demonstrated desirable results, preventing sports-related injuries and enhancing performance.

In recent decades, the general public has embraced vigorous exercise, leading to a surge in workout-related injuries. As I spent considerable time in the realm of professional and Olympian competitive sports, I noticed that many individuals push their limits like professionals. While exercise is essential for a healthy lifestyle, neglecting post-workout rehabilitation can lead to sprains, strains, muscle tears, and more.

One common misconception regarding sports massage is that lactic acid accumulation is the main cause of post-exercise muscle soreness. However, this concept is flawed and leads to improper clinical applications. Overtraining syndrome, a complex phenomenon, often begins with onset muscle soreness. Therefore, the primary goal of post-event sports massage is to prevent recurring and persistent muscle soreness after intense exercise.

We must not advocate for less intense workouts, but rather encourage rehabilitative post-event sports massage to maintain good health, reap the benefits of exercise, and prevent injuries.

A notable study conducted by North Carolina and Virginia authors (Smith, L.L et al., 1994) provides valuable insights into the effects of sports massage on delayed onset muscle soreness, creatine kinase levels (an indicator of muscle damage), and neutrophil count (an inflammatory white blood cell). Research team recognized in paper :”Their research aligns with the practical recommendations of   former Soviet  scientists, emphasizing the importance of starting post-event sports massage about two hours after vigorous exercise. This timing allows the massage to support the body's healing process, specifically the removal of debris produced by muscular injury and inflammation.

The significance of sports massage in preventing sports-related injuries and enhancing performance cannot be overstated. Its precise clinical approach, involving movements toward the heart, gradually increasing pressure, and dedicating 50% of the procedure to kneading /petrissage techniques, optimizes its therapeutic effects.

Medical doctors often misdiagnose initial symptoms of overtraining syndrome as clinical depression, prescribing antidepressants and recommending increased exercise intensity—unfortunately leading to disastrous outcomes.

As a practitioner, I have engaged in discussions with medical professionals, presenting the study by North Carolina and Virginia authors (Smith, L.L et al., 1994) to demonstrate the undeniable benefits of sports massage. Patients and doctors alike can greatly benefit from our services in preventing and managing sports-related injuries.

In conclusion, medical massage and sports massage are intertwined, with the latter drawing its essence from the former. The science-based origins of sports massage, supported by extensive research and clinical application, have proven its efficacy in promoting overall well-being and improving athletic performance. As massage therapists, it is our responsibility to leverage this knowledge to provide effective and evidence-based care, collaborating with medical professionals to offer comprehensive treatment to our clients.

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