I bet you’ve been told before that “massage is detoxifying”. But is it actually?
In short – it’s more likely that it’s the opposite: slightly (and temporarily) toxic! Yep, you read that correctly. Let me explain.
Typically when we think of a “toxin” we usually think of substances that we don’t want in our bodies. And whilst that can be the case in some instances, we have to remember that toxicity is not just a function of the substance itself but also of concentration.
By that I mean, anything (yes, even things like water and oxygen) in a concentration that is too high, is technically a toxin for us. That distinction is important in this conversation, because in massage, mostly what we’re talking about are substances normally found in our bodies, that might have accumulated to a point of being too much.
So just the stuff we normally produce, but in concentrations that are too high.
The other thing that is important to know in this conversation is that toxicity can be either localized or systemic.
Now, before we venture any further down this rabbit hole, I think we should note that our biology is wonderfully well equipped to prevent toxic situations, especially on a systemic level. We have multiple organs of filtration that help to remove things when they start to be found in amounts higher than the ideal balance point for us.
This means that any temporary toxicity (like alcohol, for example) is removed in the course of a few hours, and therefore our systems mostly handle that process of detoxification without things ever getting to a point where they are truly, harmfully toxic.
You could say then that (in most cases, for most people), systemic toxicity is a very rare event that likely signals some other grave problem.
But what about localized toxicity?
This is more the realms of massage and manual therapies.
Trigger points (a whole world of conversation unto themselves), are essentially microscopically tiny points of metabolic waste accumulation. They contribute to a lot of discomfort we encounter in our lives and likely complicate all or almost all pain syndromes. Essentially small packets of localized toxicity.
Massage *can* help with these localized patches of toxicity. [key word: can].
And when you do find a therapist that finds and helps a trigger point, what you’re actually doing indirectly is spreading that local accumulation of metabolic wastes into the blood – which means that temporarily you’re freeing toxins into your system!
Now, if it were only this, you might be able to suggest that in the end, we reducing the toxicity of the body – by taking a localized accumulation and spreading it into the system with the end-goal of those things being removed from the body. So whilst temporarily toxic, ultimately detoxifying…
But unfortunately it’s not the only thing to consider here.
With massage we also induce a small degree of muscle fiber [and other cell] damage during a treatment. It’s entirely normal and is much the same as the effect of exercise (so don’t worry, it’s not abnormal, nor actually bad for you).
When muscle fibers (or any cells, really) are damaged, what happens is their internal components leak out into your tissues, and eventually your blood – where those particular components aren’t really supposed to be.
And if it’s not supposed to be there, we can say that its presence is a relatively toxic one – and thus once again we’re temporarily increasing the toxicity of our blood/system.
((It sounds way more dramatic than it is though – because again, our biology is incredibly good at managing this)).
Sometimes we even feel the physical effects of these temporary increases in toxicity – things like feeling sick after a massage, or regional tenderness – or even general malaise. All these are likely symptoms of a temporary increases in systemic toxicity.
It’s worth noting too along that same train of thought, that massages that are harder/deeper, are actually increasing your toxicity even more – because these types of massages cause greater cell damage. Perhaps something to consider if you always feel soreness a day or two after your treatment. It’s really not necessary to feel that way, because much of the benefit of massage can still be extracted with lighter pressure and a more gradual approach.
Whilst the trigger point release might be considered to be a net reduction in toxicity if we look at the end-goal, this damage to the cells is net-new and essentially a creation of the massage. (Not to say that cells don’t die normally, they do – but that process looks very different).
So why do we always hear about massage being detoxifying? Likely by the experience of it feeling GOOD – and the results of it feeling good for most people. From that base, a logical thought process leads us to believe that something bad is leaving our system.
But even though we now know that it’s not really detoxifying (that it’s actually temporarily the opposite), it doesn’t mean that massage feels any less-good, or that it’s any less-valuable.
OH – and I almost forgot – the type of post-massage muscle soreness I mention above and the tenderness that is sometimes felt after massage – it’s more common when you haven’t received a massage for a while. Much the same as the soreness post-exercise, when you haven’t done that exercise in a while. So as you/when you venture back out into the world for your next massage, just know that you’ve likely had a long time between massages, and also you likely have more trigger points.
So go slow – and remember that the level of post-massage muscle soreness you feel is absolutely no indicator of the benefits of the treatment. So there’s also no need to get your regular deep tissue treatment right out of the gates.
Be good to yourself (and others).