sports massage for athletes

Exercise and sports are an integral part of everyday life for many people. The 2015 Physical Activity Council Report noted that 209 million active Americans participate in a variety of fitness activities, from running and playing basketball to biking and hiking.

Engaging in sports and physical activity sometimes comes with a price. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, in 2012 nearly two million individuals experienced some sort of sports-related injury that required medical attention in the emergency room.

Whether your clients prefer individual or team sports, gym activities or outdoor adventures, chances are you will encounter clients who are under a physician’s care for injuries, or dealing with less-serious conditions such as strained or sore muscles. Massage for athletes may help facilitate quicker recovery—and by adding the right type of cream, gel or lotion, sports massage can be more effective in relieving pain and restoring ease of movement.


Topical Menthol Analgesics

Shelly Yusko, owner of Strong House Spa in Quechee, Vermont, noted that her practice treats clients with a range of injuries and usually incorporates analgesic products to enhance massage sessions. “We use a number of pain-relieving gels that range in menthol content from 5 to 10 percent,” she said. “They are mostly applied during some of our sports massages and therapeutic treatments for folks with chronic and acute pain.”

Research backs up the use of menthol for delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). A small, randomized study in 2012 demonstrated its benefits. In the study, 16 subjects received topical application of either a gel containing 3.5 percent menthol or ice to the elbows following a workout designed to induce muscle soreness. The findings showed that the menthol-based analgesic reduced perceived discomfort better than ice.

A larger crossover study in 2014 mirrored these results. The authors applied a topical menthol analgesic during the working day, then a placebo 48 hours later, to the arms and hands of 645 slaughterhouse workers and 10 individuals with carpal tunnel syndrome. At the conclusion of the study, pain intensity and global rating of change had improved with the use of the topical menthol treatment.

In addition to menthol, Yusko noted that ilex, an herbal extract from a South American holly shrub; MSM, methylsulfonylmethane; and boswellia can help reduce pain and inflammation.


Reduce Pain During Massage for Athletes

Therapists at Strong House Spa also recommend clients use topical analgesics before, during and after exercise; or when they need pain relief to decrease the risk of injury.

“Reducing pain, even temporarily, can allow manual manipulation to be more comfortable and expedite recovery,” Yusko said. “We use topical products as part of a treatment plan, along with other self-help tools.

“We advise clients to apply pain-relieving products four times a day and have had no reports of safety issues with this regimen,” she added. “I have not heard of an overdose effect with any of the topicals I am familiar with.”

Regardless of ingredients, Yusko prefers gels to creams since she feels they tend to penetrate skin better. “But for others who massage, they often feel cream works better because the gels tend to ball up when rubbed in too much,” she said.


Techniques & Self-Care

Together with analgesic gels and creams, Yusko said her therapists use a variety of massage techniques. “The types of massage can range from sports, deep tissue and myofascial release to acupressure and neuromuscular re-education,” she said. The addition of foam rollers, physio balls and other specialized tools helps relieve sore muscles and sports injuries as well.

The use of analgesics during massage for athletes may enhance treatment, but Yusko also emphasized that “self-care is health care—meaning caring for yourself—and therefore we include this instruction as part of our education, self-empowerment and treatment plans.”


About the Author

Phyllis Hanlon has written nonfiction articles and book reviews as well as human-interest stories, profiles and award-winning essays. Her specialty areas include health and medicine, religion, education and business. She regularly delights in the joys of massage. She also wrote “Foot Reflexology: Lending a Healing Hand” for