Natural Health Hack #9: Self-Massage for Sore Muscles

There are numerous health benefits to regular massage:  reduced stress, reduced soreness, improved immune function, greater mobility and ease of movement, improved athletic performance, better digestion. The list goes on.  One study published in 2012 found that, while anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin and ibuprofen actually retard the healing process, massage promotes quick healing of muscle fibers by reducing the production of cytokins -- a key player in the inflammation response -- and stimulating the mitochondria to repair tears in the tissue caused by heavy use or abuse.

Unfortunately for many of us, frequent professional massage can be prohibitively time consuming and expensive.  However, with a just a few simple tools and a few minutes a day, self-massage can go a long way toward bringing you the healing benefits of professional massage without the cost.  In some instances, self-massage can be even more effective than professional massage because you are able to respond directly to your own sensation and hone in on the areas that need attention most.

What You'll Need

For gentle, full body self-massage to enhance your health and wellbeing, try Ayurvedic oil massage known as abhyanga.  (Learn how to perform abhyanga here.)  But for those deep knots, sore muscles, and old injuries, you'll need one or more of the following:

  • Foam Roller:  A large, foam cylinder for targeting long muscles such as the quadriceps, IT band, back muscles, and sides.
  • Tennis Ball:  Tennis balls have just the right diameter and firmness for targeting knots or pressure points in the upper back, chest, glutes, and hips.
  • Massage Ball:  Smaller and firmer than a tennis ball, these are great for massaging the feet, hands, forearms, and even face.

Getting Started

Do self-massage after yoga or exercise, not before.  It is best to massage on an empty stomach or at least 2 hours after a meal.  Do not do self-massage if you are menstruating, have open wounds, skin irritation, bone fractures, or swollen lymph nodes.  Lay out a yoga mat or find a clean, carpeted floor.  You can do just a little, working for a few minutes on particularly tense muscles, or if you have the time, give yourself what I like to call "the works."

"The Works"

Start by standing on your massage ball with one foot at a time and roll your foot over the ball, getting into the arch of the foot, the heel, and along the outer edge.  Spend extra time on any knots or crunchy spots, adjusting the pressure as needed by placing more or less weight on the foot being massaged.  It is helpful to have a hand on a chair or wall for support (see below).

Next, lie down with your foam roller.  Come onto your belly and slip the foam roller under your pelvis so the roller is perpendicular to your legs.  Then, supporting your upper body with your hands as if in Upward Facing Dog position, pull yourself forward until the roller puts pressure on your quadriceps (see below).  This may be painful at first.  Start slowly.  Breathe deeply.  Relax your legs and let your feet slide freely on the floor. Roll forward and back on top of the roller, working just a few inches of muscle at a time until you come all the way down to the attachments just above the knees.  Once the biggest knots have been worked out, roll a few times along the entire length of the quadriceps.  This is especially great for those of you with knee problems, as tight quads can often be the culprit.

Next, turn onto your side and place one hip on the roller (see below).  Bend the top leg and place that foot on the floor.  Using the arms for additional support, roll along the outer hip and thigh to massage the IT band.  Do this until the IT is noticeably looser, then switch to the other side.

Next, lie down on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.  Place the roller under your neck.  Rock gently side to side, massaging any tension on the side of the neck or at the base of the skull.  Then bring the roller under your shoulders and support the back of your head with your hands as if you were about to do abdominal crunches (see below).  Push into your feet and roll your upper back onto the foam roller, using the legs to roll the body to and fro, massaging different parts of the back.  Work your way down the back toward your lumbar, bringing more curve to the spine the lower you go.

Then set your roller aside and grab your tennis ball.  Lie down on your back, tuck the ball under your trapezius and shuffle yourself around as you navigate the tennis ball along the ridge of the scapula and down the muscles of the back.  Linger over stubborn knots, using only as much pressure as appropriate.  Do both sides of the back.

Finally, place the tennis ball adjacent to the sacrum and work your way around one side of the hips, massaging the piriformis and glutes.  Do both sides with equal enthusiasm.  Be gentle at first.  These muscles can be home to a lot of suppressed pain, fear, and anxiety, so don't be surprised if you come out feeling weepy or giddy, or both.

Final Thoughts

If muscle soreness is a persistent problem, insufficient hydration or electrolyte imbalance may be contributing factors.  Be sure that you are drinking plenty of fresh, filtered water, take an epsom salt bath at least once a week, and consider taking electrolyte supplements to address the issue.

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  1. Megan, Thank you. My piriformis and the entire right side of my body is tight and upset. Do you know what is a good way to massage sore knees?

    1. Hi, Serene. When my knees are tight or sore, I massage the lateral and medial tendons and hamstring attachments with arnica and/or castor oil. Arnica is great for reducing soreness before practice. Castor oil is better after practice and before you go to bed. Leave the oil on and let it work its magic.

  2. I'm going to try and locate those tendons and go with the castor oil. Thank you!

    1. Look for those ropey tendons on either side of the posterior knee, and then massage the muscle attachments above and below.

  3. I've been rehabbing a knee injury for the last two months, which has made me very frustrated with my practice. I am also very stubborn.

    Despite knowing for years that I *should* massage my tight hips, only this post convinced me to spend the three seconds on amazon to buy a foam roller and massage balls. Rollering my quads has an impressive effect of my sore knee.

    Thanks for the motivation!

    1. These are the types of comments I live for, Anon. Wonderful! Bravo for taking that important step. And best of luck rehabbing that knee. Be patient. They do heal.