As alternative therapies for arthritis are becoming more popular, people with arthritis are turning to massage to address both the pain and stiffness of their condition and their general well-being. Perhaps you haven’t tried massage yet because you don’t know what to expect, are not sure that massage is a good idea for your joint pain and inflammation, or don’t know where to find a good massage therapist. Well, to get you acquainted with its benefits towards arthritis, let’s first discuss what massage is.
Massage is one of the oldest healing arts. The ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and Greeks are all known to have practiced it. Massage became accepted in the United States in the mid-1800’s, only to wane in the following century and not revive until the 1960’s and 1970’s. Today, there are well over 100,000 massage therapists at work in the United States. They practice massage in many settings, from hospitals to health clubs to private studios. In massage, a trained professional known as a massage therapist presses, rubs, strokes, kneads, and otherwise manipulates the muscles and soft tissues of your body. People go to them for many different reasons: to ease pain, to rehabilitate from injury, to reduce stress, to ease anxiety and depression, and to improve general well-being.
While there are more than 250 varieties of massage techniques, many practitioners use a form of Swedish massage, which employs long, flowing strokes meant to be calming and relaxing. As your body becomes relaxed, the massage therapist can also apply focused pressure to relieve areas of muscular tension. Other popular forms of massage include deep tissue massage, which features strong pressure on deeper layers of tissue, and myofascial release, in which long, stretching strokes release tension in the fascia (the connective tissue around the muscles). There are also the Asian techniques of acupressure and shiatsu, which use finger pressure on specific points on the body, and the technique called reflexology, which holds that rubbing certain points on the feet, hands, or ears has a positive effect on various body parts.
So, what can it do for arthritis? As it turns out, a lot! Massage carries numerous benefits. It can aid in relaxation, which in itself promotes healing and reduces stress. It can also reduce pain, improve joint movement, relax tense muscles, and stimulate blood flow. For people with arthritis it should be used in conjunction with (and not to replace) other regular medical treatment such as pain medicine or physical therapy.
The biggest benefit is relaxation. It should bring a sense of well-being to the body. Massage triggers the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which encourages the body’s restorative processes — muscle tension is improved, the heart rate slows, and the fight-or-flight response is reversed. Massage is also thought to encourage the flow of lymph in the body. (Lymph is a fluid that circulates throughout the body; the cells in lymph help fight infection and disease.) Massage can also increase the flow of blood. However, exercise actually has a greater effect on increasing circulation than massage does. And during a relaxing massage, local circulation may increase, but systemic circulation actually slows down, as evidenced by lowered blood pressure, decreased body temperature, and slower breathing. This explains why many people actually become cooler during massage.
In a study done by the American Massage Therapy Association, 93% of people who tried massage felt it was effective for pain relief. Researchers speculate that massage encourages the release of pain-relieving hormones or that massage may block pain signals that are sent to the brain. Through direct pressure, massage affects the muscles and connective tissues in the body, increasing mobility. Especially for people with arthritis, this can help increase the range of motion in the joints and lessen stiffness in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Massage’s psychological benefits are well documented. Massage can alter mood, alleviating anxiety and depression and enhancing feelings of well-being and safety. Many people turn to massage for just this reason.
Talk with your doctor about getting a massage. There are some conditions that may be too severe for massage. And once you have cleared your decision with your doctor, you should choose the massage therapist that feels right for you. You may prefer male, or even female, but always make sure they are either nationally certified or properly licensed.