Does Massage Remove Lactic Acid? (For Massage Therapists)

[Please note: a simpler article on this topic, written for clients, can be found here.]

Lactic acid has been blamed for delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) for decades. Physiologists once believed this to be true. However, it has been known at least since the 1960s that lactic acid is not responsible for DOMS.

How did this idea become so popular? Who knows? Just about everyone has heard that lactic acid causes muscle soreness. Somehow, the word got out when it was thought to be true. The later news didn't make it past the physiologists and the myth persists and is perpetuated by massage therapists to this day. I'm on a mission to prepare massage therapists to pass the L.A.T., the Lactic Acid Test.

Lactic acid does not cause soreness and massage does not remove lactic acid. However, massage still makes our muscles feel good!

Massage therapists are fond of saying that massage removes lactic acid from the muscles. We need to get up to date on this particular bit of physiology. Some massage therapists are resistant to accepting what has been known by physiologists for decades. Why? I don't know. It's not like it questions everything we've been doing and will put us out of business. Clients don't walk in and say, "I've got a lot of lactic acid in my muscles today, can you do something to get rid of it?" Our clients walk in tight and sore and want to feel better. That's all they care about. They don't care by what mechanism it happens, they don't care if it's lactic acid or not. They just want relief. I like understanding as much as I can about how the body works and what I can do to help. Whether the mechanism by which this occurs is a particular chemical or hormone is probably not going to have a great effect on how I practice. I'm not attached to a particular idea about how that happens. If physiologists tell me that the lactic story was incorrect, it will change how I think and how I communicate with my clients, but it probably won't change what I do with my hands. The fact that what I do feels very good still remains.

The role of lactic acid

Exercise does generate the production of lactic acid and it is thought to be responsible for the "burn" felt during intense exercise, though not for the soreness that occurs a day or so later. We now know that it is completely metabolized within about an hour after exercise is stopped. Not only is it pointless to try to speed this process, since the body takes care of it on its own, but one study suggests that massage can actually slow down the metabolism of lactic acid. In addition, lactic acid is actually a source of fuel. So we, as massage therapists, don't need or want to interfere with this process.

There are a number of articles on the internet that explain the Krebs cycle, the role of lactic acid in the Krebs cycle, and how lactic acid is metabolized. My favorite is Lactating Mythers by Keith Eric Grant, Ph.D. Check it out. And next time you hand your client a glass of water after a massage, skip the speech about "flushing out lactic acid." Just consider it a nice gesture to end the massage.

Okay, everyone should now be able to pass the L.A.T. There's only one question on this test:

"Massage gets rid of lactic acid - True or False?"

If you answered "False," congratulations! You pass the Lactic Acid Test.

Encourage your friends to take the L.A.T.

And now please, can we stop talking about lactic acid?


Guest (not verified) says:
On page 117 of that edition.

Just in case anyone wants to read more about it.

What I don't understand is when you come across a therapist who knows that the claim has been debunked, but keeps saying it anyway. There's something wrong with *that* picture!

- Rosemary

Alice says:

Thanks, Rosemary!

To anyone trying to use that link: It leads to a home page for the magazine. In the top right hand corner is a little window where you ean enter page number 117 and it will take you directly to it.

There have been a number of good articles written about the subject and I am glad to see them published in magazines that will reach a large number of therapists, written by people MTs will respect. Diane points out, in the article, the way we can be discredited when someone learns that we are making claims that are not true. What is discredited is the lactic acid claim, not massage therapy itself. However, it can lead to the erroneous conclusion that therapeutic massage itself has no value.

Thanks for the link and I welcome links to other well-written articles. Eventually, the word will get around.

And yes, I can't imagine why anyone would continue making the claim once they've learned it is not true. That would baffle me.

Paris (not verified) says:

Ok, so this is actually the first time I have heard this. Your statement sounds believable, but now my question is.....What does cause DOMS? If you could be so kind as to lead me to an article to prove this theory I would be very appreciative. I am always up for learning something new, although I must admit, I'm always a skeptic until I hear the other side or another statement to back up the new found knowledge. Thanks!

Alice says:

Thanks for your question. Are you asking about information about DOMS or about studies supporting the lactic acid information? For DOMS, what I am reading these days is that they still don't know for sure the cause. There are theories but it doesn't seem settled yet. I'd recommend Paul Ingraham's article on the subject of DOMS at Paul is a retired massage therapist turned science writer. His articles are well-researched, easy to read, and he gives his sources. If he gets new information, he updates his articles. That's about the best source I can give right now outside of searching yourself.

As for more information about lactic acid not being affected by massage, there have numerous studies that document this. If you go to PubMed and search for "massage lactate removal" you'll get a list of studies. Not all are relevant but browse through it and you'll find several. Here's one about  the effects of petrissage massage on fatigue and exercise performance following intensive cycle pedalling that includes information on lactic acid. Here's another comparing massage, sitting, and walking. There are quite a few. Take some time to browse through and you won't have any difficulty finding several, or search on Paul's site for his articles on massage.

As for the Krebs cycle and the role that lactic acid plays in it, there are quite a few articles. I cite Lactating Mythers in my article because it specifically address massage therapists but a google search will turn up numerous articles on the subject.

I'm surprised this information has been so slow to make it into the massage therapy community and hope that, in my own small way, I can  help get it out there. Hope that information helps and thanks for asking.

Guest (not verified) says:

This intrigued me since I just discovered a big push to eat fermented foods (rotten?!). Increasing lactic acid in your body is stated as a goal but massage therapists and exercise sites say it's something to get rid of. Yes, I was confused!
I almost wish I wasn't because the idea that eating rotten food is healthy isn't one I like. Oh, well.
What about the guy on a Discovery documentary (I think) that can run without getting tired because his muscles are so efficient at metabolizing lactic acid quickly? They did tests on him about it and gave that as the reason he runs twenty or more miles and then back again without ever getting tired. Does this make sense?

Alice says:

 Nutrition is outside of my area of expertise so I can't really comment on the fermented foods. I don't know anything about the runner, either. Sorry I can't help you out on this one, you'll have to look around and see if you can find more information on that elsewhere. 

Thanks for stopping by!