If you are an arthritis sufferer you may be wondering whether massage is a suitable therapy to relieve some of the symptoms of your condition. Thankfully, several recent studies have looked at the effects of massage for arthritis, and we now have a better understanding of whether and how massage works for the symptoms of arthritis.

Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, conducted research on the effects of massage for the relief of the symptoms of arthritis. She found that regular massage led to a reduction in pain and stiffness, an improvement in the range of motions, hand grip strength and overall function of the joints (1). A finding which has been backed up in other recent studies. 

Tiffany Field also found that in order for massage to be effective in relieving arthritis, the right pressure has to be applied. Moderate pressure was found to stimulate pressure receptors, nerves under the skin which relay pain-reducing signals to the brain, leading to a reduction in symptoms. A light massage, such as just brushing the skin, did not stimulate those pressure receptors (1).

A further study confirmed these findings. It studied the use of massage to improve stiffness, pain and range of motion in adults with knee osteoarthritis. Massage two times a week was found to improve knee pain, stiffness and function (2). The effectiveness and benefits of massage for the relief of chronic back pain was in another 2011 study seen to last for up to 6 months. Here, two types of massage were compared, one relaxing and one therapeutic. Neither massage technique was found to be superior, leading us to the conclusion that it is not so much the type of massage, but rather the pressure used which brings relief from symptoms (3).

What you should know if you are interested in trying massage for the symptoms of arthritis.

It is still not known how massage reduces pain, however it is thought to be linked to a reduction in the release of stress hormones and a reduced production of a certain neurotransmitter linked to pain. Massage also strengthens the immune system (4).

Before booking your first massage treatment, it's advisable to consult your GP to make sure that massage is safe for your condition. Some techniques may use moderate to strong pressure on sensitive tissues and joints. Massage should not feel painful but be an enjoyable experience. Talk openly with your massage therapist about your goals for the session so he/she can adjust the technique accordingly. 

Although, massage is generally safe for people with arthritis, there are a few conditions where you should proceed with caution. These are:

Damaged or eroded joints from arthritis
Flare of inflammation, fever or a skin rash
Severe osteoporosis (brittle bones)
High blood pressure, read more here >
Varicose veins

Massage is not medicine, it is however an effective complementary treatment to your existing arthritis treatment. Most importantly, massage should make your arthritis symptoms better with regular treatments, while providing you with a chance to relax and switch off for a while.

References:

1. Field T1, Diego M, Delgado J, Garcia D, Funk CG. Rheumatoid arthritis in upper limbs benefits from moderate pressure massage therapy. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2013 May;19(2):101-3. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2012.12.001. Epub 2013 Feb 6.

2. Perlman AI1, Sabina A, Williams AL, Njike VY, Katz DL. Massage therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee: a randomized controlled trial. Arch Intern Med. 2006 Dec 11-25;166(22):2533-8.

3. Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Kahn J, Wellman R, Cook AJ, Johnson E, et al. A Comparison of the Effects of 2 Types of Massage and Usual Care on Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. Ann Intern Med. 2011;155:1-9. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-155-1-201107050-00002

4. Rapaport MH, Schettler P, Bresee C. A preliminary study of the effects of a single session of Swedish massage on hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal and immune function in normal individuals. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2010; 16(10):1–10.

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