When I first started out as a massage therapist, I was still wrapping my head around the 900-hours of information I had been given in the last 12-month period of my life.
So, I began learning from my colleagues at my first job, a massage studio with maybe a dozen and a half other therapists, many of whom had been working much longer than I had.
There was one claim I kept hearing over and over, and that was that massage therapy had this incredible ability to detoxify the system, specifically from esoteric toxins that somehow built up in your muscle tissue. Sometimes, the words lactic acid were dropped, and that sounded like science, so I reiterated that claim to many of my own clients, often with the confident swagger of somebody who had more than four-whole-weeks of real-life experience.
As my early career trudged on and I dug deeper into my field, I started to read a lot of information contradicting that very claim.
I recalled one day in my therapeutic massage class, my teacher, a wise-old hippie type who had been in the field for decades, said something about how a better term was “waste product,” and not, “toxins.”
I probably didn’t retain what he said just before this, so I assumed he meant that waste products and toxins were actually the same things.
Actually, not really.
When getting a therapeutic massage (or deep tissue), you are quite literally damaging your muscles and mildly poisoning yourself. A teeny tiny bit, anyway.
Don’t cancel your next massage appointment just yet…
When a massage therapist digs into your muscles, to break up adhesions, scar tissue, or stretch or pull those angry muscles apart from one another to relieve tension, a small amount of damage is being done. A trigger point, or a small adhesion in the tissue, is broken up so that your body can heal that section of muscle tissue properly.
When any small amount of damage is done to your muscles, it creates a by-product, most likely myoglobin molecules, that then go into your blood and are processed by the kidneys. In other words, massage actually creates toxins in your body. But don’t fret, your body is meant to be able to process these toxins with its own miraculous self-healing capabilities.
There are some, albeit very rare and extreme cases, where the body doesn’t effectively process out these myoglobin molecules and you end up feeling like you have the flu for anywhere from a few hours to a day. This is the extreme end of a condition called Post-Massage Soreness and Malaise, or PMSM. The non-extreme end is just being sore.
The word “toxins” is thrown around liberally when it comes to holistic health and wellness, but the truth is, there are tons of different types of toxins. Which ones are we trying to get rid of exactly, that our body can’t do on its own? (I’ll go ahead and guess a lot of people trying to sell you some sort of detox don’t really know, either).
A toxin is, by definition, a poison created by a natural source.
Snake venom? That’s a toxin. But if you get bitten by a rattler, the first person you are going to call is likely not going to be your massage therapist.
Lead, mercury, formaldehyde, and asbestos are also considered toxins. I actually did a little research into the efficacy of massage therapy as a treatment for lead poisoning, and, well, I came up empty-handed.
There are also toxins in food, especially these days, but our bodies are evolved enough to filter out pretty much all toxins within our own, complex, and hard-working organs, and the best part is you don’t have to do anything to make that happen. Your liver, kidneys, and colon do all the work on their own, whether you’re consciously thinking about it or not.
“But what about lactic acid? A massage therapist said those words to me once,” you may be thinking.
Here’s the truth — lactic acid doesn’t build up in your muscles, and it can’t be squeezed out by even a firm petrissage. Lactic acid is that intense burning that you feel when you are nearing your maximum lifting weights at the gym or sprinting down the track and you’re so close to your finish line. Suddenly, your muscles feel like there’s a little fire inside them, and you can keep going for a bit, but it’s basically a signal from your body that it’s about time to stop.
Once you stop, that burning dissipates, and you go into recovery mode. This is part of something called the Cori Cycle.
I’ll explain this physiology as simply as I possibly can…
When your muscles are working, they run on this energy source called ATP. Your body converts glucose into pyruvic acid, which is then turned into ATP. To do this, oxygen is needed. When you are working out hard and getting close to your maximum output, the supply of oxygen becomes limited, and instead of turning into ATP, the pyruvic acid is turned into lactic acid. Then, your muscles feel like fire is coursing through their fibers, and it’s empowering for a few seconds, but realistically, it’s about time to drop those dumbbells otherwise the lactic acid is going to make your muscles start cramping pretty fast because that’s what it does.
When that fiery feeling begins to cease, the lactic acid dissipates into your bloodstream, where it is sent back to the liver which turns it back into pyruvic acid, then back to glucose where it is recycled for your next set. Within an hour tops, all that lactic acid has been dissolved from your system, and you didn’t even need my magical hands to help.
Another perpetuating myth that many massage therapists will tell you is to drink a lot of water after a massage. Good life advice, but it won’t necessarily help you reap the benefits of that massage any harder than you already are going to.
When clients ask me if they should drink water, I don’t really argue. Your muscles are made up of 79% water so why would drinking water not be good for your muscles?
I mean, there are some studies out there like this one that suggests you may be more prone to delayed-onset muscle soreness after a workout if you are dehydrated. Using the same logical line of reasoning, if you are going to get sore from a massage, that likelihood is probably higher if you are dehydrated coming into it.
Also, assuming much of the population is perpetually dehydrated, YES, I will answer, drink all the water!
The truth is, it probably won’t help you post-massage, particularly if you were already dehydrated coming in. Your kidneys are going to flush out that myoglobin molecule that’s created by therapeutic massage whether you are hydrated or not, and you won’t necessarily help them along by drinking more. But drink the water because it’s the elixir of life and your body will thank you.
You are likely to gain more out of the massage if you are already hydrated prior to the massage. That doesn’t mean drink a 32-ounce Nalgene full of water right before your appointment, because then you will likely have to pee about 10-minutes in and you’ll be tensing up a lot of muscles trying not to let it out all over the massage table. (That’s going to take away from the whole massage experience). Just focus on drinking as much water as your body needs consistently throughout each day, preventing dehydration, and you’ll get what you need.