Massage Therapy for Arthritis

Although massage therapy cannot cure or stop the progression of arthritis, it can ease the symptoms associated with inflammation and help improve your quality of life. While the cartilage damage of arthritis cannot be reversed, massage is helpful in reducing muscle spasms and decreasing compression associated with the arthritic joint disorder.

How Can Massage Therapy Help Ease Arthritis?

Massage therapy involves working soft body tissues with the hands or with an instrument. When practiced correctly, massage therapy can help improve joint movement, relax tense muscles and stimulate the flow of both blood and nutrients to the skin and tissue underneath. Patients report it feels good and breaks the cycle of stress that often comes with chronic illnesses, such as arthritis.

The benefits of massage include:

  • Increased circulation
  • Increased flexibility and mobility
  • Decreased pain and inflammation
  • Relief of muscle aches and stiffness
  • An overall sense of relaxation and wellness

A variety of massage styles can help decrease arthritis pain. Swedish massage therapy is the most relaxing and is used to stimulate blood flow to the skin and relax the muscles. Deep-tissue massage therapy can decrease pain and improve movement in specific muscles and joints. Reflexology involves applying deep pressure to points on the feet that correspond to specific areas of the body. During an acute flare-up of arthritis, reflexology is often recommended because painful joints are not touched directly, and pain and symptoms can be relieved from this distal treatment.

Can Massage Therapy Help Arthritis?

Recent studies have found that massage therapy seems to be helpful in the treatment of osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee, and also effective for chronic hand arthritis.
During a four-week study, patients with chronic hand arthritis who received regular massage therapy experienced less anxiety and pain, along with improved mood and greater grip strength. Overall, the massage therapy group showed greater improvement than did the standard treatment group on all measures.

What Happens During a Massage Therapy Session?

A massage therapy session can last from 15 - 90 minutes and can include a schedule of follow-up visits, depending on the severity of your situation. At your first massage therapy session, the practitioner should ask you about any symptoms you may have (like painful joints) and will also ask questions about your medical history. The practitioner will also discuss your expectations regarding massage therapy.

Swedish Massage Therapy is the most common type of massage therapy in the United States. Swedish massage therapists use long smooth strokes, kneading, and circular movements on superficial layers of muscle using massage lotion or oil. This type of massage can be very gentle and relaxing, which may ease arthritis pain.

Massage should be avoided when joints are especially tender or inflamed, since a treatment can actually worsen the symptoms at such times. Your massage therapist should be informed of your condition and use gentle techniques.

What is Arthritis?

Healthy cartilage on the joints between bones allows the bones to glide smoothly within the joints and helps to cushion the stress of physical movement. In a person with arthritis, bones may not glide as smoothly and joints may be painfully inflamed. Symptoms of arthritis can include pain, stiffness, redness, swelling, heat, and limited range of movement.

There are more than 100 different forms of arthritis. Two of the most common conditions are osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Osteoarthritis (OA), the most common type, is mainly seen in older adults. In OA, joints are damaged as cartilage, the material that surrounds joints, wears down, causing inflammation. The disease can become disabling. Osteoarthritis often affects the knees, making it hard to walk. Other commonly affected areas include the hips, fingers and spine. The wrists, elbows, shoulders, and ankles can also be involved when there is a prior injury or weakness from repetitive strain.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease, in which the immune system attacks parts of the body, resulting in inflammation. The most commonly affected areas include the hands and feet, although RA can also affect the elbows, shoulders, neck, jaw, ankles, knees, and hips. As with Osteoarthritis, cartilage is broken down and worn away by Rheumatoid arthritis, causing bones to rub together. Patients with RA also have joint swelling, pain, and stiffness.

Are There any Risks Associated with Massage?

Massage is considered a generally safe procedure. Pain or other negative side effects are usually caused by overly vigorous massage techniques. Diabetics should check blood sugar levels after a massage session because it may be too low afterward.

Tell your therapist to stop if you feel any pain. Massage should not be performed on any joint that is currently swollen or painful.
Massage may influence absorption or activity of both oral and topical medications. Tell your massage therapist about any medications you are taking.

Possible side effects of massage therapy may include:

  • Temporary pain or discomfort
  • Bruising
  • Swelling
  • A sensitivity or allergy to massage oils

Additional Resources

Expert Village offers a video demonstration of hand massage for arthritis.

The Arthritis Foundation

All About Arthritis offers an article discussing massage for arthritis

Perlman, A. Archives of Internal Medicine, Dec. 11/25, 2006; vol 166: pp 2533-2538. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: "Handout on Health: Osteoarthritis."

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