A soothing massage does more than relax aching muscles, scientists have discovered.
It reduces inflammation at the molecular level, mimicking the action of pain killing drugs, research suggests.
Massage also promotes the growth of new mitochondria, the energy-generating 'powerplants' in cells.
Relaxing: Massages also have an anti-inflammatory effect, say scientists
Scientists conducted a genetic analysis of muscle tissue samples taken from volunteers who had exhausted themselves on exercise bikes.
One of their legs was randomly chosen to be massaged. Biopsy samples were taken from both legs prior to exercise, immediately after a 10 minute massage and after two and a half hours of recovery.
The results, published in an online edition of the journal Science Translational Medicine, showed that massage dampened the effect of cytokines - immune system signalling molecules which contribute to inflammation.
At the same time, it promoted the biogenisis of mitochondria.
The pain reduction associated with massage may involve the same mechanism as that employed by anti-inflammatory drugs, the scientists believe.
Lead researcher Dr Mark Tarnopolsky, from the Department of Pediatrics and Medicine at McMaster University in Canada, said: 'The potential benefits of massage could be useful to a broad spectrum of individuals including the elderly, those suffering from musculoskeletal injuries and patients with chronic inflammatory disease.
'This study provides evidence that manipulative therapies, such as massage, may be justifiable in medical practice.'
Massage therapy is used by The Royal Marsden NHS Trust for cancer patients who are having problems relaxing or getting to sleep.
'It can help cope with pain, muscle stiffness, breathlessness, anxiety and fatigue,' a spokesman said.