Arthritis and Massage Therapy


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f you suffer from the pain, swelling or stiffness of arthritis, you are not alone. Millions suffer from this disease, which literally means “joint inflammation.” Even though there is no known cure for arthritis, certain measures can slow down the process and help you live more comfortably. Therapeutic massage is one of these measures.

What is arthritis?

Though the term arthritis covers over 100 conditions, the overwhelming majority of arthritis cases take one of two forms: osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.

Osteoarthritis is a degeneration of the cartilage that cushions joints. Often the result of years of normal wear, advanced osteoarthritis can result in bone grinding against bone. The major symptoms are pain, stiffness in the joints, inflammation and swelling.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an immune disorder. It usually affects the same joint on both sides of the body, for example both knees. It causes pain, swelling and stiffness. Rheumatoid arthritis damages cartilage and bone, and over time may cause deformity. During flare-ups you may experience flu-like symptoms. Periods of intense flare-ups may alternate with days of minimal discomfort.

Why therapeutic massage?

Therapeutic massage can help manage the discomforts of arthritis in a number of ways.

Pain relief. Massage can reduce the devastating grip of arthritic pain by helping you refocus attention on the pleasant sensation of nurturing touch. Massage also directly addresses muscles and their connective tissue coverings, called fascia, that can painfully contract around arthritic joints. Massage gently coaxes your tissues to relax and lengthen, helping you enjoy greater comfort in the hours and days following your massage.

Reduced swelling and improved joint health. When tension is relieved, circulation improves. This cleanses tissues of irritating by-products from arthritic inflammation and improves nutrition to tissues. Swelling often lessens as excess fluid enters the circulatory system where it can be eliminated. With regular massage, natural joint lubrication is also likely to improve.

Improved mobility. Massage relaxes muscles and increases the pliability of fascia, both of which can limit your movement. This helps increase both comfort and range of motion in your daily activities.

Support for exercise. Research indicates that moving and exercising appropriately can slow the degenerative process of arthritis, both in the joints themselves and in muscles which can atrophy with disuse. Because massage can reduce muscle pain and improve joint mobility, you may find it easier and less painful to stretch and exercise appropriately.

Some precautions to take

As long as it feels comfortable, therapeutic massage is almost always helpful for arthritis with a few precautions. Massage therapy should never cause you pain or discomfort, remaining within your tolerance level at all times. Extra caution is needed if you are on pain medication, since this can interfere with your giving accurate feedback to your massage therapist on pressure or tenderness. If you find you are fatigued or sore after a massage, shorter sessions may be more appropriate.

Extreme care should be taken during flare-ups of rheumatoid arthritis. Some therapists prefer not to massage during this time. Others will work very gently in non-affected areas to relieve tension and improve your overall comfort.

To make sure you are receiving the most comfortable and effective treatment, keep your massage therapist informed about your symptoms, medications and any changes in your health. It is also important to let your primary health care practitioner know you are receiving massage.

How will it feel?

Massage on healthy tissue should feel wonderful. The normal response is to slow down, breathe deeply and relax.

If you are sensitive to touch, your massage therapist will use gentle but firm pressure to calm your nervous system, gradually preparing you for deeper touch.

The saying “no pain, no gain” is not true for massage and bodywork. The most effective and deepest massage works with the body’s natural responses, not against them. Working in the area of an injury or chronic pain may at first cause some discomfort, which usually lessens in the first few minutes. Always tell your therapist if the pressure feels too deep. She or he can modify the approach to minimize pain, and will work carefully within your comfort level.

Stress relief and arthritis

Emotional stress can increase your sensitivity to pain and drain your energy for dealing with arthritis and the demands of a normal life.

Therapeutic massage can help by eliciting the body’s relaxation response, resulting in a deep sense of calm. This can leave you feeling more rested, optimistic and energetic. Sleep usually improves in the days following a massage, allowing your body to further repair and restore your energy levels.

Stress relief can play an especially positive role in rheumatoid arthritis. Research shows both that emotional stress can impair the body’s immune response and that regular massage can improve immune system function. Since rheumatoid arthritis is an immune system disorder, regular massage between flare-ups can make you less susceptible to acute episodes.

Meeting your individual needs

Depending on your condition on a given day, your massage therapist will draw from a variety of hands-on and other techniques such as gentle stretching or warm and cool applications. Your therapist will be delighted to explain his or her approach, as well as any specialized experience or training in working with arthritis.

Additional approaches that provide relief to many arthritis sufferers are appropriate exercise, good nutrition, heat and cold therapy, anti-inflammatory drugs, physical therapy, frequent rest and stress management. Your massage therapist can work with your family physician or rheumatologist to create the best program to manage your arthritis.

Living more comfortably

Therapeutic massage can be a vital part of your arthritis treatment plan. It can help you live more comfortably with improved joint mobility and less pain. Massage also gently promotes relaxation and relieves stress which, in turn, can renew the mental and physical resources you need to enjoy a full life.

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Arthritis and Massage Therapy