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Sports Massage: The Effect On DOMS

The Problem

Delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) is possibly the greatest plague among gym goers, sports people and athletes alike. When it aches for you to sit up in bed in the morning, there is a satisfying feeling that your workout yesterday, or even the day before, did its job well. As a reward you can feel that achy pain in your muscles. In a way, this pain is quite cathartic. A feeling that I associate with good effort in the last session. But when you can’t move properly, you can hinder your training or even performance if you’re near competition. Smashing a great squat session then not being able to squat properly for days afterwards, even crouching down to pick something off the floor can feel counter-productive. Sticking with this example, it will also be painful to walk up and down stairs, and sometimes sitting down can be a painful task in itself. Your quads, calfs, hamstrings and glutes will all be achy and uncomfortable. Sports massage is supposed to be able to relive pain and tightness so let’s take a look and see if it actually works.

What is DOMS

There are many proposed reasons for DOMS, it is a complicated issue, one that I would associate with the natural inflammatory response from normal healing. Some researchers would agree as it’s also been associated with a grade 1 muscle strain. This is less than 5% of fibres being damaged, so it really is not something to worry about. This is part of the body’s mechanism for getting bigger, stronger and creating other positive adaptations to our muscles. So as above, people who are actively training for sport or to look better will generally suffer from DOMS at some point in their lives. One of the possible reason for DOMS being muscle damage means we can measure it both directly and indirectly. I must stress here, that muscle damage does not equate to pain and pain does not equate to greater damage. However, little bits of both are signs that you will see positive change as this will show the body change needs to happen.

Not moving into certain ranges is a problem that can be caused by DOMS to avoid pain. If we can get rid or reduce this pain we will feel more willing to move into the painful areas. The negative side of avoiding this movement is that our muscles take longer to recover and are likely to lose flexibility. Movement is imperative for recovery in so many ways, it could be its own university degree.

Sports Massage Claims

Sports massage has shown numerous times to reduce DOMS. Below are two graphs from different studies that show the rate at which DOMS diminishes days after the exercise. The first one targeted the quads after a horrendous DOMS inducing squat and leg press workout to failure. Each set was to failure with a minimum of 10 reps even if that meant reducing the weight. The second one targeted the biceps where they had to do 5 sets of 35 near maximum bicep curls, again, it doesn’t sound pleasant and I can imagine the pain from these workouts. But that is the point, we need a serious stimulus to measure change, there would be little point checking DOMS after a 2 mile walk in healthy active young people. Unless it was after the DOMS inducing squat session!

The evidence

This first graph (reproduced from data in Kargarfard et al. 2016) shows a clear and significant decline in pain days 1 through 3 following the massage, but we see an increase in pain from the group that didn’t receive the massage. Look at that pain scale on the left, 10 being the worst pain imaginable and both groups reporting a 9 right after the workout! That is a serious problem to have, who’s going to play well with a 9/10 pain in their legs. You may think that you wouldn’t do that level of training before competition anyway, and you’d be right. However, even with that level of pain, it increased the following day! Which I honestly did not anticipate, those who had the massage did show what I was expecting and the pain in those people reduced gradually. Although the 2nd day we see a big drop in pain followed by a massive drop on day 3 where the people that didn’t get the massage still have incredible pain in their legs. I can only guess as to what happens after day 3. The study did not measure that far, but it would be logical to assume that the blue line had a gradual drop and the green continued to plummet to no pain, or normal. So from this I would have to say that a massage on the day of a tough workout will significantly reduce your pain even if it takes a couple of days, the mechanisms are still working their magic under your skin.

The second study (Smith et al. 1994) did not show a baseline for the massage group so I didn’t put the controls baseline on this graph for fairness

The second graph (reproduced from data in Smith et al. 1994) shows a very similar pattern, the control group’s pain increased, although this time I did expect it as from a 5/10 it is feasible to get worse pain, and from experience this happens a lot. Also similar to the first graph is the almost linear drop in pain from 5/10 to 2/10 for the people who had a massage. This study did go to 4 days post massage and pain in both groups was still dropping.

The Counter-Evidence

A Sports massage will not always benefit you when you’re in pain/discomfort. When pain on a scale of 0-10 is only a 1 or 2 out of 10 it appears that a sports massage has little effect. In fact it may even worsen your pain (Evans 2015). In Evans’ (2015) study pain 1 and 2 days after was between 0.3 and 0.6 higher than those who didn’t get a massage. However, unlike the first two studies the stimulus was not massively DOMS inducing, nor was it designed to be. In her study they completed a typical plyometric workout. However with plyometrics it is difficult to assure that everyone is putting in maximum effort, unlike lifting 90% 1 rep max as in the first study for squats.


Based on these studies, I think it is fair to say that the greater the stimulus, the greater the pain. And the greater the pain the greater/more obvious effect massage has. So when considering whether to get a sports massage, rate the pain out of 10. The higher the number, the more benefit you may get from a sports massage. This is not to say you need to be in pain to justify having one, there are other benefits to massage that are not discussed here. But when pain is the main reason for a sports massage, then the worse the pain, the more benefit you appear to get from a one.


Evans, E. (2015). The Effect of Sports Massage on Recovery Following Plyometric Training.

Kargarfard, M., Lam, E. T., Shariat, A., Shaw, I., Shaw, B. S., & Tamrin, S. B. (2016). Efficacy of massage on muscle soreness, perceived recovery, physiological restoration and physical performance in male bodybuilders. Journal of sports sciences, 34(10), 959-965.

Smith, L. L., Keating, M. N., Holbert, D., Spratt, D. J., McCammon, M. R., Smith, S. S., & Israel, R. G. (1994). The Effects of Athletic Massage on Delayted Onset Muscle Soreness, Creatine Kinase, and Neutrophil Count: A Preliminary Report. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 19(2), 93-99.

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