In the past 20 years, the number of disabled athletes, in other words, para-athletes, competing at elite levels has increased, as witnessed by the number of participants at the 2016 Rio Summer Paralympics (4328) compared to the number at the 1996 Summer Paralympics in Atlanta (3255). Para-athletes also have higher incidence and prevalence of injures compared with able-bodied athletes.
Picture By Australian Paralympic Committee, CC BY-SA 3.0
Given that massage therapy is known to enhance recovery by reducing pain and fatigue in sport endurance athletes, researchers from Greenville, South Carolina, conducted a study to examine the effect of massage therapy on pain, sleep, stress, function and performance goals on the bike, as well as the quality of life off the bike, in the United States elite paracycling athletes (para-athletes) in training from January 2015 until the Rio Olympics in 2016. The study was published in the journal BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine.
The study involved one team, with nine paracycling participants, in years 2015 and 2016. One-hour massage sessions were scheduled one time per week for 4 weeks, and then every other week for the duration of the time the athlete was on the team and/or in the study. Closed and open-ended survey questions investigating athlete goals, stress, sleep, pain and muscle tightness were gathered pre and post each massage session, and every 6 months for health-related quality of life. The results of the survey were tabulated at baseline, 4-6 months of intervention, and at the end of the study. Additional qualitative data were derived from therapists’ treatment notes, exit surveys, and follow-up emails from the athletes and therapists.
The results showed that massage therapy afforded significant improvement for sleep, muscle tone (tightness), and recovery from workout while in training for paracyclists.
The authors concluded that this real-world study provides new information to support massage therapy as a valuable treatment approach for physical improvement during training and recovery after training in elite paracyclists.