Massage therapy is an increasingly popular treatment for muscle pain, stiffness, and injury recovery. Many people get frequent massages hoping to speed up healing or provide ongoing relief from chronic muscle issues. This raises the question: is it possible to get too much massage? Can you overdo it and cause harm instead of help?
In this 5000 word guide, we’ll explore the evidence around over massaging muscles. We’ll cover:
- What happens during massage at a cellular level
- Short term vs long term massage effects
- Risks and side effects of excessive massage
- How often you can safely get a massage
- Best massage duration for muscle health
- Who is most at risk from over massaging
- Signs you may be getting too many massages
- Precautions to take if you get frequent massages
Let’s start by understanding what massage does to your muscles and how that can turn from help to harm if overdone.
What Happens During Massage at the Cellular Level
Massage is the manual manipulation of muscles and other soft tissues in the body. Massage therapists use techniques like kneading, rubbing, tapping and stretching to affect change in muscles, fascia, tendons and ligaments.
During massage, a few key physiological changes happen at the cellular level:
- Increased blood circulation – massage moves blood through congested areas
- Increased lymph drainage – massage pushes lymph fluid around the body
- Increased oxygenation – improved circulation brings oxygen and nutrients to tissues
- Increased flexibility – massage stretches muscle fibers and connective tissue
- Decreased muscle tension – massage relieves muscle tightness and spasms
- Reduced adhesion formation – massage breaks down scar tissue adhesions
- Increased endorphins – massage boosts mood via endorphin release
These cellular changes underlie the many benefits associated with massage – reducing pain, speeding injury recovery, improving range of motion, lowering stress and enhancing immunity.
However, while a little massage produces positive effects, more massage isn’t necessarily better. Too much can put tissues under excessive stress and strain, leading to new issues.
Short Term vs Long Term Massage Effects
The immediate impact of massage is generally positive. In the short term, massage:
- Boosts local circulation
- Loosens muscle fibers
- Lowers inflammation
- Reduces cramping
- Improves flexibility
- Lessens pain signals
These short term effects make massage helpful for:
- Post-workout muscle fatigue and strain
- Injury recovery and rehabilitation
- Managing chronic muscle tightness and spasm
- Enhancing sports performance
- Reducing muscle soreness from overexertion
However, when massage is continued long term, the body adapts to the constant mechanical stress. Tissues get overworked and can become inflamed, scarred and damaged.
Too much massage overtime causes:
- Muscle overuse – chronic strain leads to microtears
- Thickened fascia – constant stretching creates fibrosis
- Nerve compression – tissues swell and pinch nerves
- Adhesion formation – scar tissue binds muscles together
- Stressed lymphatics – lymph drainage system overburdened
These long term effects mean frequent massage for extended periods can potentially do more harm than good. Moderation is key.
Risks and Side Effects of Excessive Massage
Research looking specifically at over massage is limited. But we know from isolated case reports and general massage precautions that too much can have adverse effects.
Potential risks and side effects of over massaging muscles include:
Excessively kneading and compressing muscles causes tiny tears to muscle fibers. If given time to heal this isn’t an issue. But constant massage strains tissues faster than they can recover. This leads to larger muscle tears, scar tissue and chronic tightness.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Massage performed too frequently activates the inflammatory response. This leads to prolonged swelling, muscle damage and severe post-massage soreness. Soreness lasting several days after massage indicates tissues need more rest.
Chronically tense, swollen muscles compress nerves. Constant massage rubs and strains nerves already under pressure. This aggravates conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome, sciatica and piriformis syndrome.
Changes to Lymph Flow
Frequent massage strains the lymphatic drainage system. Normally massage boosts lymph flow. But overworked vessels struggle to keep up, causing fluid build up and swelling. This worsens lymphedema.
Increased Adhesion Formation
Massaging scarred, damaged muscles before they fully heal lays down more haphazard collagen. This leads to more adhesions, fibrosis and decreased flexibility long term.
Skin Irritation and Bruising
Too much massage subjects skin to constant friction. This causes irritation, rashes and hives. Deep techniques like myofascial release also cause bleeding under the skin.
Over massaging tense neck and shoulder muscles strains the head and neck. This commonly triggers tension headaches and migraines.
How Often Can You Safely Get a Massage?
There’s no universal safe frequency for massage. The ideal massage routine depends on:
- Your overall health
- Areas being massaged
- Massage techniques used
- Purpose of massage
As a general guideline:
- 1-2 massages per week is reasonable for short term goals like injury rehab, training recovery or relaxation.
- 1-3 massages per month works for more general health maintenance and chronic muscle relief.
- Daily massage is almost always excessive.
Factors increasing safe massage frequency include:
- Healthy muscles free of injuries
- Deep tissue techniques avoided
- Only small areas massaged like feet or hands
- Light pressure used by therapist
Factors decreasing safe frequency include:
- Acute or recent injuries
- Massaging large areas like full legs or back
- Use of very deep pressure
- History of blood clotting issues
Massage more than 2-3 times per week should be closely monitored for adverse effects. Always allow 48 hours between deep tissue massage sessions for full muscle recovery.
Best Massage Duration for Muscle Health
Along with overall frequency, the duration of individual massage sessions matters too. Long massages aren’t automatically better for muscles.
Research on optimal massage length is limited. But general practitioner recommendations suggest:
- 30-60 minutes provides thorough treatment for one area or muscle group.
- 90 minutes should be the maximum full body massage duration.
- 120+ minutes risks overworking tissues.
Factors stretching a massage to the longer end of the duration range include:
- Full body treatment
- Complex medical history requiring specialized techniques
- Very large or overweight individuals
- Use of gentle pressure
Keeping individual massages under 90 minutes helps avoid:
- Overstraining muscles
- Excessive inflammation
- Delayed onset muscle soreness
- Migraines and headaches
For most healthy individuals getting a basic Swedish or relaxation massage, aim for 30-60 minutes 1-3 times per month.
Who is Most at Risk From Over Massaging?
Some individuals are more vulnerable to the risks of excessive massage due to their unique physiology and health status.
Those most likely to suffer adverse effects from too frequent massaging include:
People With Acute Injuries
Massage strains injured tissues before they fully heal. This worsens muscle tears and delays repair after pulls, strains and impact injuries. Avoid massage within 48 hours of any acute injury.
People With Bleeding Disorders
Conditions like hemophilia and thrombocytopenia increase bleeding and bruising risk from deep massage. Avoid deep pressure and techniques like myofascial release.
People on Blood Thinners
Medications including Warfarin and Heparin heighten bleeding risk. Use light pressure and avoid deep techniques that can cause internal bleeding.
People With Chronic Conditions Like Osteoporosis
Fragile bones and joints are vulnerable to overstraining. Use a soft touch and avoid jarring movements that jar bones.
People With Lymphedema
Swollen limbs from lymphatic conditions can’t handle repeated massage. Seek specialized lymphatic drainage massage from a therapist familiar with the condition.
People Who Bruise Easily
Clotting disorders and delicate capillaries cause bruising. Avoid massage pressure and speed that ruptures capillaries.
People on Medications That Thin Skin
Steroids like Cortisone weaken skin integrity. Use lubrication and light pressure to avoid damaging fragile skin.
The risks need to be carefully weighed against potential benefits for vulnerable populations getting frequent massages. It’s also vital to communicate health conditions with massage therapists before each treatment.
Signs You May Be Getting Too Many Massages
How can you tell if your massage schedule is helping or harming your muscles? Watch for these warning signs of over massage:
Ongoing Muscle Soreness
If muscles feel overworked and fatigued instead of rejuvenated, it’s time to cut back. Soreness lasting days after massage indicates tissue damage.
Noticeable bruises that take many days to fade signal capillary damage. Reassess your therapist’s pressure or frequency.
Rashes, hives and thick calluses mean skin needs a break from friction. Avoid problem areas until skin recovers.
If muscles regularly swell after massage that’s a red flag for lymphatic overload. Allow more rest between sessions.
Numbness and Tingling
Goosebumps and nerve tingling during massage can progress to prolonged numbness and reduced sensation if ignored. Nerves need rest.
No Lasting Benefits
If massage provides increasingly little benefit, you’ve likely hit a point of diminishing returns. Take a massage break for 1-2 months.
Listen to your body. If you need more and more aggressive massage for temporary relief without lasting gains, you’re overdoing it.
Precautions to Take if You Get Frequent Massages
Here are some simple precautions to incorporate if you get very frequent massages to help avoid overuse injuries:
- Vary massage therapists. Seeing different therapists provides diversity of techniques and pressure.
- Alternate massage types. Switch between relaxation, deep tissue, hot stone, stretching etc.
- Rotate areas treated. Don’t massage the same body parts two sessions in a row.
- Use less pressure over time. Ask therapists to gradually lighten their touch.
- Schedule rest periods. Take 1-2 weeks off massage every 2-3 months.
- Communicate overuse signs. Tell therapists if you experience soreness, bruising or numbness.
- Increase rest and recovery practices. Plan extra rest, hydration, stretching and nutrition around massage sessions.
- Avoid massage over injuries until healed. Don’t rub existing muscle tears.
Careful management and moderation helps prevent excessive massage from backfiring. Remember that less can often be more when it comes to massage frequency and duration.
Too much of a good thing applies to massage therapy. While massage produces many benefits, more isn’t necessarily better. Excessive massage can actually overwork tissues, causing muscle damage, nerve compression, delayed healing and chronic pain.
Aim for no more than 1-3 massages per month, using light to moderate pressure for 30-90 minutes. Increase rest days between sessions. And avoid massage over existing injuries or if experiencing negative side effects. Moderating massage frequency allows you to keep enjoying the benefits without overstressing your muscles.