Massage is one of the most popular healing practices and has proven beneficial for many people with arthritis. Dozens of massage techniques exist, ranging from gentle to intense, but almost all aim to ease stress and sore muscles. For some, it’s also a way to connect and communicate with another human being and feel safe and comforted.
Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, has conducted many studies on the benefits of massage for adults and children with arthritis. Her research has repeatedly shown that moderate-pressure massage can lead to improved pain, stiffness, range of motion, hand grip strength and overall function in people with OA, RA and fibromyalgia.
Two other studies led by Adam Perlman, MD, now executive director of Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C., looked specifically at massage for knee OA. The first, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2006, found that patients who received twice-weekly Swedish massage for four weeks followed by weekly massage for another month showed significant improvement in all arthritis measures, including pain, physical function, range of motion and walking.
To determine the most effective amount of massage, the second study, published in 2012 in PLOS One, compared four Swedish massage regimens. The results showed that one 60-minute massage a week was more beneficial than a 30-minute massage or usual care, but benefits peaked at the 60-minute mark.
Researchers say massage seems to work for many reasons. It increases circulation, bringing more nutrients to tissues. It also seems to lower production of the stress hormone cortisol, reduce heart rate and blood pressure, and decrease anxiety – perhaps due to stimulation of sensory receptors that send information to the central nervous system and brain.
Field says her studies, which have looked at the effects of massage on almost every joint, show that what matters most is the degree of pressure used, not the type of massage.
“The critical thing is moderate pressure,” she says. “Light pressure, just touching the skin superficially, doesn’t get at the pressure receptors. With moderate pressure, we saw results for almost every condition we studied.”
Find a Massage Therapist
Most massage schools require their graduates to have 500 to 1,000 hours of training. “Look for a massage therapist who is certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB),” Dr. Perlman says. You can find certified therapists on the NCBTMB website.
Organizations like Massage Envy, whose therapists meet state and local requirements, can be found throughout the country. (Massage Envy supports the Arthritis Foundation. You can find a Massage Envy Spa near you using our Arthritis Resource Finder.) Look for someone who is experienced in working with people with arthritis.
Author: Linda Rath for the Arthritis Foundation
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