Video: Does Massage Flush Toxins?

Does massage flush toxins? Does it break up lactic acid? Check out my new video on the topic:

If you’ve followed me for a while, you know the ending. The whole “toxin” thing is a persistent myth, and it’s based on a misunderstanding of our internal environment. It assumes that there are areas of stagnation within muscles, and that these areas need to be wrung out so that fresh fluid can pump in. The fact is that the body is constantly refreshing the fluid between and within cells, especially highly vascular tissue like muscle. With every heartbeat and every little movement, circulation carries on.

I want to make one thing clear: I get it. The idea of stagnant fluid makes sense. After all, we get up and feel stiff. Doesn’t that mean that the muscle itself is stiff? The toxin thing makes a kind of sense too. If we feel pain, or just feel heavy or tired, doesn’t something need to be flushed out?

These ideas resonate with us because they match our macroscopic world. When a hinge is stiff, it needs oil. When we sit in a chair often enough, it wears out. But our bodies aren’t just macroscopic and static; there’s a rich, busy microscopic world at work, even when you’re sitting still. If chemicals start accumulating in a cell (carbon dioxide, lactate, salts, etc.), our organelles, channels, and pumps bring it back to homeostasis. If tissue becomes hypoxic, capillaries dilate to increase the local blood flow. If there’s damage, macrophages and fibroblasts mobilize to fix it up. The “stagnant tissue” idea falls apart upon closer inspection.

If you tell clients about toxins, I know it’s because that’s the information you were given. The only reason I’m trying to put the brakes on this myth is because clients take this information to heart. They hear about these toxins and start wondering if they’re sick. They can carry this toxin idea with them for the rest of their lives.

Instead, what if we emphasized how robust their homeostatic mechanisms are? What if we talked more about how resilient they are, both in body and mind? As massage therapists, we can choose to focus on the wholeness of each person, rather than on something being broken. We can make this case silently through our hands, and we can openly tell people: “Even though you’re in pain, your body is resilient, and change can happen.”

Let me know what you think. If you used to talk about toxins, what have you changed when talking to clients? What do you say when a client asks, “is massage good for flushing toxins?” Thanks for reading!

Photo credit: threephin via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

7 thoughts on “Video: Does Massage Flush Toxins?

  1. I love this post, it all makes so much sense. I myself was taught about how massage can flush toxins out of your body and have always been sceptical about this-now-confirmed-myth. I also love the advice “Even though you’re in pain, your body is resilient, and change can happen.” Can i steal this?? 🙂 It made me feel instantly better just reading it, I can only imagine how much positivity this can bring to people!

  2. We were always told toxins accumulate and systems may be a little sluggish at times getting rid of them, especially the lymphatic system which has no pump. Surely we are allowed to use this to give a positive aspect to our massage. How much better do swollen feet feel after a massage?

  3. The word toxin in the context of massage is one that has bothered me for a while now, and I think I’ve nailed down my beef with it. Suppose a client asks me why they are sore and why massage helps, and I say, “well, massage helps flush out built up toxins.” The client can go home and feel like they have an answer and I can go home feeling like I’ve given them an answer, but I really haven’t. The word “toxin” could mean something entirely different to me, the therapist, than it does to the client. In this case, we could actually be having two entirely different conversations because we think a single word has different meanings. But if we stop to define the word “toxin,” for the client, it may quickly become clear that I’m not referring to anything more concrete than “something bad,” really just some abstract biological bogeyman.

    I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that in a medical sense the word “toxin” refers to nasty things like saxitoxin and tetrodotoxin. In the massage industry we’ve co-opted it to mean whatever the client and the therapist want it to mean, whatever fits into their separate understandings of muscles and aches and pains and etc. I think massage therapists are, by and large, people pleasers and we don’t want to confront clients with information that might conflict with their medical/biological belief systems. A word made meaningless like “toxins” serves us perfectly in this context.

    Furthermore, as insight into what causes aches and pains improves, the specific culprit to blame for that achy in my neck changes. Massage consumers may not care to be updated on medical research findings. Because a word like “toxin” means whatever it is we need/want it to mean, so it evolves at precisely the same pace as scientific understanding of the human body. Whether it’s lactic acid, inflammation, substance P, or yet to be identified molecular compound X, toxin refers to each and all of these. Given that we may not have much time to have candid conversations about the cause of pain with our clients, a word like “toxin,” although lacking scientific integrity, is a necessary evil considering the reality of our industry.

    Sorry for the dissertation. This is what happens when English/Philosophy majors become massage therapists.

  4. Great post
    At last someone talking about massage in a way that makes sense to me!
    I would often get the deadeye during my massage therapy training when I would venture that I didn’t get the toxin theory and felt like a fraud talking about ‘ knots and toxins’ with clients.
    I come from a healthcare background and the toxin thing went against everything I thought I previously knew about how physiology worked.
    I predominately work with pregnant women and this worry that I might release lots of mythical toxins which have been ‘locked’ in their muscles, which may then harm their baby, is a barrier to some ladies getting treatments which would help support them through the immense and often uncomfortable physical changes of pregnancy.
    I am glad I have found a resource that can explain it far more comprehensively than I ever can ?

  5. So…I am coming to this party quite late. I was most definitely taught about toxins and it has always made sense in my head. Now I am hearing about this not being true…and I really am trying to wrap my brain around it. So a couple questions…You mentioned in the video about clients feeling flu like after an aggressive massage, what causes that? Also you mention our adipose tissues holding pollutants as we are massaging are we not affecting these tissues also? I would love to be better able to understand and therefore educate clients, but I really am having trouble with this one… Thanks!

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