You’ve probably heard stories about cars that seem to last forever, with over 250,000 miles on them, and that run better than your one year-old model. Those long-lasting cars aren’t flukes. Behind their long, healthy lives are owners who regularly check their fluid levels, rotate tyres, and are equally fastidious about other routine maintenance work that most of us ignore until it’s too late. Similarly there are reasons why some people are able to compete at a high sporting level for many more years than most, with fewer injuries. It could be put down to good genes, good training routine including knowledge of when to back off. Another factor, like the car owner, is regular maintenance work, i.e. sports massage.
What Is Sports Massage Therapy (SMT)?
Firstly, you do not have to be a sports person to benefit from SMT. This is a common misconception; SMT refers to the deep firmer mobilisation techniques used on the tissues. It loosens overused muscles and helps them release waste products. It also benefits people who suffer occupation / RSI problems, as lack of movement can be as damaging as excessive; encouraging muscle shortening, slowing blood-flow and increasing specific areas of tension. SMT is a lot different from the general relaxation techniques that most people associate with massage.
The Benefits of Sports Massage:
Sports massage has many of the same benefits as stretching, as it helps increase blood flow to the muscles, stimulate nerve endings and break down scar tissue. It also encourages tissue healing by aiding re-align damaged fibres, which ultimately improves muscular function. It is the quality of rest that is the key to effective training, of which massage can greatly improve the effectiveness. Regular treatment enables more training at a higher level and with greater safety.
Most sports require good flexibility; however stretching exercises alone aren’t always fully effective due joint range restriction. E.G, the elbow joint cannot extend beyond 180 degrees, which doesn’t fully stretch all the biceps muscle fibres. Where a problem affects only a small part of a muscle, the majority of healthy fibres can stretch sufficiently to accommodate the full range without having any effect on the damaged area. SMT techniques can stretch specific areas of tissue, irrespective of range of movement.
The most common of all sports injuries is the over-use injury. It can develop slowly over a period of days, weeks, months or even years. The sports person may not be aware of the problem until it reaches a critical level, resulting in a strain with fibres being torn.
The same occurs on a microscopic level if one particular compartment, or in fact just a few fibres within it, are over-used. Although this breakdown occurs on a microscopic level, the pathological changes that take place are just the same as with any soft tissue tear – that is, bleeding and swelling, the onset of secondary muscle tension in the surrounding tissues and the formation of scar tissue (see fig 1). This is what accounts for the general soreness often experienced in muscles after hard exercise: it is due to the high level of micro-trauma and not necessarily to an actual strain (not the common misconception that it is due to the excess accumulation of lactic acid).
With any soft tissue strain, rest is vital in the early recovery stages. But the inflammation caused by micro-trauma may be too small to cause any noticeable pain, so the individual may continue to exercise unaware of the problem. A moderate level of activity is acceptable and may even be helpful. It need only involve the healthy fibres, will promote circulation and prevent adhesions forming in the damaged area. Any greater effort will place a demand on the damaged fibres, which can inhibit recovery. The scar tissue and tension in and around the micro-trauma prevent any function (contraction or stretching) and so the adjacent fibres have to work harder to make up for this deficiency. These fibres can then become over-used and may also suffer trauma (see fig 2). Micro-trauma and scar tissue will build up gradually. Adhesions may form, affecting the elasticity within that area of the muscle, making more of the muscle vulnerable to further micro-trauma. From this the over-use syndrome and risk of injury develop, both locally, and at other parts of the body as biomechanical faults may develop altering natural movement patterns.
At the end of the day all injuries have a cause, some obvious, though not always. For example, the person who appears to have done nothing unusual but wakes up one morning with a stiff and painful neck. If it was just to do with the activity, then everyone who did it should expect to get the same injury. If ten athletes compete in a race at the same level, why does only one suffer an injury? There must be other precipitating factors involved – a healthy body doesn’t just self-destruct!
Caring For The future!
Education and appropriate funding at grassroots level are vitally important if young athletes are to progress to their highest level. Recognising the early signs of potential problems is essential as ‘prevention’ is far better than ‘cure’! The old advice of “ignore the pain and learn to run through it” should be avoided at all costs.
Example: – Is this you? You wake up and your back aches. Your doctor prescribes painkillers and rest for a muscle strain. The medicine numbs the pain, you ‘forget’ to rest and go cycling, rowing, running etc. The pain comes back worse than before. Now you’re out of action for a week or more. Sound familiar?!?
Remember: Pain is the body’s way of telling us something is not right – ignore it at your peril!
Simple Rules for Injury prevention
- Seek advice immediately if there is any sign of persistent soreness, or sharp pain at the start, during or after training.
- Have a routine check-up on a monthly basis with a ‘hands-on’ therapist to ensure any major soft-tissue damage is contained and not allowed to develop unnoticed into a major injury later.
- Adopt a carefully programmed warm-up and stretching routine appropriate to the event.
- Maintain a regular routine of core-stability exercises.
- Continue training or competing if there is ongoing discomfort or acute pains in any joint or muscle group
- Attempt any stretching exercises that generate localised pain within muscle groups, tendons or attachment points
- Undertake stretching or strengthening exercises without prior instruction from a suitably experienced trainer or therapist.
The greatest benefits from sports massage, like stretching, come from doing it regularly, even when you feel fine. Bearing in mind costs, to get any real benefits you should go at least every 4-6 weeks, anything less is like starting from scratch. Certainly, both stretching and massage help you when you have an acute problem. But a good way to avoid an injury at all is to be consistent in your flexibility program, which should include sports massage, as is the most powerful tool for improving muscle elasticity.