A Healing Touch: The Benefits of Massage for Arthritis

Camille-Benefits-of-MassageDiagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) when she was just eight years old, Camille has her treatment regimen down pat — medicine, movement and massage.

“My rheumatologist recommended that I try getting a massage to deal with some of the more stubborn knots I have in my joints,” says Camille, who is now 24. “I have always loved getting massages, and they have helped my arthritis in ways I would have never guessed.”

As the benefits of massage become better known, more and more people like Camille are turning to regular massages to control pain and de-stress. Though often characterized as an indulgence, businesses such as Massage Envy have established themselves with locations across the country to make massage accessible and convenient. Massage is actually one of the most popular complementary therapies used by Americans, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), part of the National Institutes of Health.

So, what does massage do exactly? According to Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, regular massage of muscles and joints, whether by a licensed therapist or by self-massage at home, can lead to a significant reduction in pain for people with arthritis. In Field’s research and other recent studies on the effects of massage for arthritis symptoms, regular use of the simple therapy led to improvements in pain, stiffness, range of motion, hand grip strength and overall function of the joints. Camille’s experience has been a case of life imitating research.

“My monthly massages take the pressure off of my joints and reduce knots that I get after activities, which makes it easier for me to stay active,” says Camille who loves to swim, paddleboard, play beach volleyball and dance.

How Does Massage Work?

Research has shown that massage can lower the body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol while boosting production of serotonin, which can improve mood. Additionally, massage can lower production of the neurotransmitter substance P, often linked to pain, and improve sleep as a result.

“For me, the effects of massage are as much mental as they are physical,” says Camille. “When I get stressed, I feel my arthritis starting to flare and my body starting to stiffen up. Massage helps lower the stress which triggers inflammation.”

Best Types of Massage for Arthritis

If you’re interested in trying one of the many types of massage as a way to ease your arthritis symptoms, consult your rheumatologist or primary care physician first to ensure that you’re a good candidate for massage.

Use caution when considering massage if you have:

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

Field advises talking with your massage therapist beforehand about your arthritis so that he or she knows which parts of your body are most affected. And, don’t be afraid to speak up once the massage starts.

“It’s very important to tell the therapist if you are experiencing pain or if you are uncomfortable with the work that he or she is doing,” says Field. “A good therapist will want feedback on what you are feeling during the session.”

Camille, who typically sees the same therapist for every massage at Massage Envy, says that forming a consistent relationship has gone a long way in maximizing the benefits of massage for her.

“My massage therapist knows me pretty well at this point,” says Camille. “He always takes the time to ask me what’s bothering me the most and what kinds of activities I have been doing. He knows that if I’ve been paddle boarding, I’ll need more focus on my lower back. A different activity might require him to work on something else.”

Talk openly with your massage therapist about your goals for the session so she can adjust the technique accordingly. There is no set way to perform a massage, so there is room for the therapist to flex to meet to your needs.

Finally, remember that massage is not medicine. It is intended to work with — not against or in place of — your doctor-prescribed arthritis treatment.

“For me massage has been a great supplement to my other treatments, staying active and eating well,” says Camille. “Massage really is a lifesaver for me.”

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