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Massages Feel Good, But They Also Help Speed Up Muscle Recovery

A study has confirms the link between mechanotherapy and immunotherapy in muscle regeneration, suggesting a drug-free, non-invasive way for treating injured muscles.

Written by Longjam Dineshwori |Updated : October 9, 2021 4:01 PM IST

After a hectic week, we often like to pamper ourselves with a massage on weekends. It makes us feel good and relaxed. But massages can do a lot more than just making you feel good. For thousands of years, massages are used to treat sore, injured muscles. Today many athletes use massage guns to rehabilitate their bodies. A new study published in Science Translational Medicine has also concluded that massages can improve muscle recovery after severe injury.

The study was conducted by researchers from Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). They applied consistent and compressive forces to mice's injured leg muscles and found that these treated muscles recovered stronger and faster than untreated muscles.

This is likely because the compression squeezed inflammation-causing cells out of the muscle tissue, the researchers suggested.

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The authors said that their study confirms a functional link between mechanotherapy and immunotherapy, and proposes a non-invasive, drug-free treatment that can help regenerate many types of tissues.

"Our work shows a very clear connection between mechanical stimulation and immune function. This has promise for regenerating a wide variety of tissues including bone, tendon, hair, and skin, and can also be used in patients with diseases that prevent the use of drug-based interventions," stated first author Bo Ri Seo, Ph.D., who is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the lab of Core Faculty member Dave Mooney, Ph.D. at the Wyss Institute and SEAS, as quoted by Science Daily.

Beneficial effects of mechanotherapies explained

Seo and her team, who have been exploring the effects of mechanotherapy on injured tissues in mice since several years ago, found that it doubled the rate of muscle regeneration and reduced tissue scarring over the course of two weeks.

To probe more deeply into exactly how that process worked in the body, they teamed up with soft robotics experts in the Harvard Biodesign Lab. They then created a small device using sensors and actuators to monitor and control the force applied to the limb of a mouse.

Using the device, they applied consistent, repeated force to injured muscles of mice for 14 days. Both treated and untreated muscles showed a reduction in the amount of damaged muscle fibers, but they found more pronounced reduction and larger cross-sectional area of the fibers in the treated muscle, indicating greater repair and strength recovery. The greater the force applied during treatment, the stronger the injured muscles became. This confirms that mechanotherapy improves muscle recovery after injury.

A detailed biological assessment showed that a subset of cytokines associated with the movement of inflammation-causing immune cells called neutrophils was dramatically lower in treated muscles after three days of mechanotherapy. Compared to untreated muscles, treated muscles also had fewer neutrophils in their tissue. This suggests that the reduction in cytokines that attract them had caused the decrease in neutrophil infiltration.

The force applied to the muscle by the mechanotherapy helps clear neutrophils and cytokines out of the injured tissue, and thus enhances the process of muscle fiber regeneration, they stated.

The team now hopes to test this effect on different types of injuries, age-related muscle loss, and muscle performance enhancement.

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