When I was in school, we were taught that one of the benefits of massage was that it increases circulation. Consequently, most massage therapists have been saying this for years but is it true and, if so, what do we mean by it? Let’s take a look at this question more closely.
Are we increasing the fluid circulating through the body? Nope. That isn’t possible because it’s a closed system. Blood volume is finite and doesn’t vary by a great degree in either direction without serious repercussions. Therefore, more blood in one area would mean less blood in another. This is, in fact, what happens when the nervous system ramps up (fight or flight) or gears down (rest and digest). More details on how your circulatory system works here.
Perhaps a massage moves the contents of that closed system through faster? Maybe a little but not enough to be clinically relevant. For that to happen your heart rate would need to increase but a massage generally does the opposite, slow it down. You would increase your circulation more by exercising, even walking, than you would by getting a massage. More details on this topic here and here.
What about the redness at the massage site? Yes, the skin can get red and hot in response to mechanical stimulation. This is called hyperaemia and is observed as blood vessels dilate during massage. Although improving local circulation can be very valuable, this effect is both superficial and temporary and comes at the expense of blood flow in another area.
Maybe massage increases blood flow to the muscles? Unlikely. We know that the nervous system shifts blood flow from one area to another based on its level of need. The sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) increases blood flow to our muscles when we feel under threat, like running from a bear. The parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest response) brings blood flow to our internal organs and skin when we feel safe and relaxed. So, it actually makes more sense that a massage, which is generally relaxing, will shift blood flow away from muscles, not toward them.
All that being said, there have been some studies (1, 2, 3) that have looked at how massage might affect local circulation but they are inconclusive at best. So, I think the answer is no, massage does not affect circulation to a great degree. Research is ongoing and more evidence may be found but for now, we need to let this idea go and, ultimately, I’m not sure it matters. Massage is awesome for lots of other reasons and that’s what I focus on.