Updated: Jul 11, 2020
There are a number of pervading myths floating around in the massage world, and over and above all others is this one right here.
Myth - "Massage releases trapped toxins in the body, and drinking lots of water will help to flush them out."
The above statement is actually a two-for, as far as myths go, but because they are so often cited together I want to address both parts here. Though massage has many wonderful benefits for health and well-being, detoxing is not one of them, so let's clear the air. A highly beneficial natural treatment like massage does not need false advertising mucking up it's reputation, after all. Unfortunately, the myth of toxins being released by massage therapy is still taught in some schools, and therefore continues to be repeated by therapists old and new. Despite the fact that it has been debunked, it continues to persist, for a few reasons that I can tell - for one, not all massage therapists or instructors keep up with the latest research; two, it sounds good in a world where clever (but inaccurate) marketing has popularized the idea of "detoxing"; and three, clients often feel "massage drunk" after a session, and it sounds like a good explanation for that phenomenon.
Research has not found any evidence to show this supposed increase in "toxins" circulating through the body after a massage, trying to find the exit now that they have finally been let loose.
Probably because our muscles don't store them up to begin with. Fat cells can hold onto certain types of toxic substances (more specifically, persistent organic pollutants, or, POPs), and heavy metals can build up in your bones, but massage therapy is not capable of releasing any of those substances from the body.
Of course, the word "toxins" gets thrown around so loosely in this context, I'm not sure exactly what substances are being referred to, and neither do those making these claims seem to be. Go ahead - next time a massage therapist (or physical therapist, or anyone making this claim) tells you that toxins are being released, ask them what the names of these toxic substances are. And if they say "lactic acid", nope, wrong!
Lactic acid is not a toxin, and it doesn't just sit in your muscles. Lactic acid is a substance produced during the process of cellular respiration. When you overwork a muscle, such as during a workout, lactic acid builds up, until you rest the muscle, at which point the process of cellular respiration continues and the lactic acid converts to the next step in the process. You know when lactic acid is building up because it produces a burning feeling, but also notice that burning feeling dissipates rather quickly once you rest your muscle.
And that whole "massage drunk" thing? Well, to be honest, no one knows for sure what causes it, but it is thought to be due to the way massage stimulates the nervous and endocrine systems. And, the reason you sometimes feel kinda "icky" following a massage? This is because massage therapy sends your body into a healing process following a mild inflammatory response. Don't be alarmed, as this is actually a good thing that will see you better off on the other end of it. None of these effects are due to an elevation of toxins circulating through your system.
Now, for the second half of the myth. The idea that you can flush toxins out of your body with water is erroneous. Your liver and your kidneys handle the job of filtering out undesirables from your blood, and drinking lots of water is not going to speed that process up. So, no, you can't flush things out in the way it sounds. However, if you have noticed that you usually have to pee right after your massage, that is because of the way massage stimulates your lymphatic system and gets those fluids moving right along. That being said, staying hydrated is always important, so replacing those fluids after a massage is a good idea, but no need to go overboard.
Here's a short list (but certainly not all-inclusive) of some of the actual benefits of massage therapy:
Pain relief and management
Lowered blood pressure
Increased range of motion (ROM)
Boost the immune system
Improved muscle tone
That's not too bad for an hour's work!