I was discussing workouts with a friend the other day when they made the statement “I need to see you for a massage. I am so sore after my workouts and I know massage is great for getting rid of toxins and the lactic acid built up in my muscles.” That got me thinking about how often I have heard this statement and how it is so difficult to get rid of incorrect information.
The lactic acid and toxin theories have become urban legends in so many gyms and massage offices. I want to correct this misinformation as best and as simply as I can without going all sciencey on you, I will do my best to keep it simple.
Lactate or lactic acid buildup is not responsible for the muscle soreness felt in the days following strenuous exercise. Lactate (lactic acid) is a normal byproduct of muscle metabolism. The production of lactate and other metabolites during extreme exertion results in the burning sensation often felt in active muscles. This painful sensation gets us to stop overworking the body, thus forcing a recovery period in which the body clears the lactate and other metabolites. The lactate/lactic acid are removed from muscle shortly after you stop the strenuous activity up to a few hours later. This is all a natural function of the body. *1 There’s a medical condition called lactic acidosis that needs medical attention due to very elevated levels of lactic acid. *2
Delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS is characterized by sometimes severe muscle tenderness as well as loss of strength and range of motion, usually reaching a peak 24 to 72 hours after the extreme exercise event. The exact cause of DOMS is still unknown, most research points to actual muscle cell damage and an elevated release of various metabolites into the tissue surrounding the muscle cells. The responses to extreme exercise result in an inflammatory-repair response, leading to swelling and soreness that peaks a day or two after and resolves a few days later, depending on the severity of the damage.*3
So to put it in layman’s terms lactic acid is used in the energy cycle of the muscle cell and flushes rather quickly. The soreness you feel a day or two later is caused by the damage to the muscle cells from exertion and the body’s healing response.
Now to address a pet peeve of mine….toxins…. Massage does not flush toxins from your body (and don’t get me going on cleanses either; more bunk IMO). First is the whole debate as to what toxins are and how we get them. I will stick to what I believe. Toxins are poisons i.e. lead = poisoning. To have a toxin removed from your body you would need to see doctors for treatment (way beyond a massage therapist skill level ). Your body does have waste products from its natural metabolic process and flushes them via, expiration, liver and the kidneys (sweat, poop, and pee). The ability of a massage therapist to flush said toxins? Nope can’t do it…… Yes, massage may increase surface circulation (make your skin flush) but the flushing of your system has never been tested or proven in a scientific research study. I believe at some point in the early days a leap of faith leads to the statement “Massage can flush toxins.” It sounded good so everyone took it for truth and years later people are still believing. I have looked for studies and research to back up “the flushing of toxins” and have found none.
I would love to say that massage research has proven many of the statements that have been floating around in the massage therapy world but it has not. Research cost lots of money and takes time. Someday I hope the industry will be taken more seriously by the medical profession and get the studies done. Unfortunately, as long as some of the crazy “urban legends” still float around so prevalent, it is an uphill battle.
There have been studies done on the benefit of massage for stress, low back pain and DOMS *4 that have shown there is some effectiveness of massage. I have experienced and many a client has felt a difference after a good massage. Nothing in life is guaranteed 100%, well other than death and taxes that is.
I hope you will go forth and correct those that you hear stating that lactic acid is causing their muscle soreness and that a massage will flush it all out…