Getting a massage is one of my favorite ways to relax and de-stress.
From personal experience, I know that later on that day or even the next day, I sometimes feel a bit out-of-sorts. I may start feeling cold- or flu-like symptoms.
Massage therapists have also mentioned to me that I might feel this way because we are “detoxifying” the body. Usually, they don’t know that I’m in the health field and that I’m going to go home and do some research to see if this is really true.
Based on the data I have seen, most researchers don’t agree that any form of massage really detoxifies the body. We have organs like our liver and kidneys to help with that.
But is there a real reason why we may be experiencing these symptoms after getting a massage? Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to answer this.
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Experiencing Symptoms After Massage
There could be a number of reasons why you and I could be feeling like we’re coming down with something after receiving a massage. Some of it may have nothing to do with the muscle work at all. It’s possible that we could have been fighting something off for the past few days.
The other thing we have to consider is the type of massage you were given.
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Swedish vs. Deep Tissue Massage
The most common type is Swedish massage. But there are at least 4 different types. This type of massage involves long and gliding strokes. The aim of Swedish massage is mainly to increase blood flow, improve flexibility, and ease tension in the body's muscles.
Then there’s deep tissue massage. This targets deeper structures of muscles and connective tissue. It is mainly used to treat musculoskeletal issues like strains or sports injuries.
When a therapist uses deep tissue massage, it’s possible that there may be some soreness afterwards. Anytime there’s muscle soreness, the body’s immune system has become activated to try and repair those sore muscles. And anytime the immune system becomes activated, we may feel fatigued or like we’re coming down with a cold or the flu.
Massage and Toxins
Now, back to the releasing toxins idea.
The theory was that by squeezing muscles and possibly the lymph tissue around those muscles, we are pushing the blood and lymph fluids around so that they move on to our detoxifying organs more quickly and out of the body.
So far, studies haven’t shown this to be true.
Blood Lactate Levels
One of the ways researchers test for this is by looking at something called blood lactate levels.
Imagine you’re sprinting really hard across a field. Besides your heart feeling like it wants to explode, at some point, your legs will start to feel like they’re on fire. This burning sensation is caused by the build-up of lactic acid, also called lactate.
When we perform high intensity exercises like sprints, high intensity interval training, or even when lifting weights, we can experience lactic acid build-up. This build-up of lactic acid can irritate the muscles and lead to muscle soreness.
The theory is that if you can remove some of this lactic acid through massage, then you might be able to reduce muscle soreness.
The Research & Data
But when researchers studied whether massage helped remove lactate from the body, they found that in most cases, it simply didn’t happen. There are a couple of studies that contradict this and found that getting a massage 2 to 6 hours after intense exercise might help relieve muscle soreness.
What Should I Do After A Deep Tissue Massage?
There are certain things you can do after a massage to help you get the best out of the experience.
After your appointment, remember to:
- Drink a lot of water to rehydrate — it helps to remove any metabolic wastes which accumulate while your muscles were being worked on.
- Avoid working out immediately after a deep tissue massage. According to licensed massage therapist Jim Memory: “Micro-tearing of the fibers can occur during deep muscle work.” This is similar to during a hard workout where the muscles need time to recover. You should wait 12 – 24 hours before hard exercise to allow your body to heal and recover.
- Treat any soreness. If your muscles feel tight and painful, try to do some light stretching. Your therapist may recommend applying ice to the sore areas, and the stiffness should go away after a day or two. Some discomfort and soreness after a massage is normal. You should not in crippling and shooting pain.
- Avoid having a heavy meal right after. Opt for something light and healthy like a bowl of blueberries, or anti-inflammatory food like broccoli which helps with sore muscles. You want to feel reenergized and not bloated.
- If possible, avoid drinking alcohol, coffee, or eating anything with caffeine after your appointment. Alcohol is dehydrating, and post-massage is a time when your body needs more water. You don't want substances like alcohol to further tax your filtering organs. Water is best until your body has had some time to rest and recover.
The Bottom Line
Here’s why I can’t conclusively say what might be going on with the amount of toxins being released.
There are so many different types of massage and different ways to study them, it makes it challenging to make sense of all of it. But what most can agree on is that if you believe massage therapy helps you feel better, it likely will.
I know that when I get a massage, I get into a meditative state and feel much more relaxed after.
So in that context, the benefits of massage seem to be mostly psychological. That means it is possible that the flu-like symptoms felt after the massage were psychological as well, or possibly unrelated to the massage itself.