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Robotic mouse massage: is it “regenerative” and “anti-inflammatory”? [premium post]

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of PainScience.com: a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

Massage science rarely makes a big splash, but a strange new study did in early October with this extraordinary claim: “robotic” massage of mice supposedly helped their little muscles heal. “Massages feel good, but do they actually speed muscle recovery? Turns out, they do,” says the Harvard Gazette. Lead researcher Bo Si Reo:

“This has promise for regenerating a wide variety of tissues including bone, tendon, hair, and skin, and can also be used in patients with diseases that prevent the use of drug-based interventions.”

Sounds like a big deal. The hair growth market alone is probably worth billions! And you thought those scalp massagers were just for relaxation!

This seems like an extremely good news story for massage. And because it comes from Harvard, this good-news cake has a thick and delicious icing of credibility. The complexity and sophistication of the experiment itself also make it look good (and harder to critically appraise).

And so the headlines were credulously shared by countless massage therapists on social media, while the massage gun industry rejoiced. I rolled my eyes and started warming up my debunking muscles.

Photo of a trapped wild mouse standing up in a glass container. The mouse looks damp and bit freaked out.

Why was the mouse massage “robotic” in this study? I guess it sounded cool. But it was just a customized tiny vibrating massage tool — no more of a “robot” than a simple assembly line machine.

Confession: Even I got a little infected by the hype

Despite my well-earned reputation for being a wet blanket about massage pseudoscience, I actually got an optimistic buzz from this news. I love massage. Skepticism about it is not a reflex for me; my natural enthusiasm for massage has to be tamed with mental discipline, and hype like this gets to me too. Hype is a potent drug.

And so there I was, a few hours later, banging away at my burning Achilles tendons with a massage gun. Yes, of course I own one: I love massage! As my tendons vibrated, my brain produced giddy, hopeful rationalizations: Maybe I can squeeze the inflammatory cells out! It worked on those mice, didn’t it? Plus it’s like I’m doing more research! If it works, I can tell my readers!

Dear reader: It didn’t work. Surprise surprise!

“Squeeze the inflammatory cells out”? Seriously? But that is actually how The Harvard Gazette explained the results.

The science is dubious. The hype is hilarious. And, in today’s premium post, I will break it all down: the most generous possible interpretation, the bad news about the technical limitations of the study, and the deal-breaker that no one’s even talking about.

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The rest of post is for paid subscribers only, and it’s a beast: another 2400 words, about nine minutes of reading. Still to come:

  • An overview of the study and its major malfunction
  • “For science”: What exactly was done to these poor mice?!
  • What did Seo et al. find?
  • What do the results mean? Hype-factor nine, Mr. Sulu!
  • The most generous possible interpretation
  • “Mice lie and monkeys exaggerate”
  • The huge leap over the chasm between biochemistry and clinical reality
  • The deal-breaker: an answer in search of a question
  • Anti-inflammatory hype déjà vu
  • Interesting stuff, but way too indirect and preliminary

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Warm Regards,
Paul Ingraham
PainScience.com Publisher