Massage therapy is a well-established treatment for promoting relaxation and reducing muscle tension. Among its lesser-known benefits, however, massage therapy can help alleviate symptoms for people living with multiple sclerosis (MS).
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic autoimmune disease that occurs when the body’s primary defense mechanism (white blood cells) attacks the central nervous system. The process causes inflammation that can diminish the protective covering around your nerves. Doctors are not entirely sure what causes MS, although they do know that environmental and genetic factors contribute to it. Symptoms of MS can affect physical movement and emotional well-being — which massage can help improve.
Many people with MS incorporate bodywork services, such as massage, acupressure, and shiatsu, into their overall treatment plan. These treatments can be used alongside conventional drug therapies to minimize pain, enhance range of motion, and improve quality of life.
Understanding the basics of massage therapy and how it can relieve MS symptoms can open the door to a treatment you may not have considered. That said, bodywork is not right for everyone. Ask your doctor for medical advice before you add regular massage appointments to your treatment plan.
Massage therapy is a common form of bodywork that has been used to alleviate tension, relax muscles, provide pain relief, and reduce stress for thousands of years. Even the ancient Greeks used massage to help athletes recover from injuries.
Massage does not slow MS and should not be used as a primary treatment for the condition. However, it can provide a number of physical, functional, and emotional benefits to people with MS. As one MyMSTeam member shared, “I had the best 60-minute massage today and simply loved it. I'm currently in the midst of my start to recovery post-flare, and it felt like the perfect stretch — very needed.”
Massage therapy may help some people with MS manage spasticity by relaxing tense muscles and improving range of motion. It can also be used preemptively to stop the development of pressure sores. Other massage techniques may improve pain or circulation. One such technique is called petrissage, during which practitioners lift and squeeze the skin to encourage blood flow through the soft tissue. Even the friction caused by mild stroking and light massage can be useful in increasing blood circulation through surface-level veins and capillaries.
Targeted massages can also be useful in increasing certain bodily functions. For example, one study conducted in 2017 found that abdominal massages can help alleviate symptoms of constipation in people with MS.
Massage can also have a notably positive impact on a person’s mental and emotional state. A 2014 research initiative found that regular massages improved participants’ perceptions of their wellness and reduced stress. This, researchers concluded, “could have a profound impact on MS symptom management and quality of life experienced by the individual.”
Despite the potential benefits of massage, some people with MS should actively avoid bodywork therapies. Some conditions might complicate or make massage therapy infeasible, including:
If you have any of the above conditions, you should talk to your doctor before scheduling a massage appointment.
There are several schools of thought in the massage world, each with its own set of approaches and methods. Here are some of the most common.
Swedish massage is one of the most common and popular forms of bodywork practiced today. It is characterized by kneading, circular movements (effleurage), deep pressure, tapping, vibration, and long, slow strokes.
German massage is very similar to Swedish, using many of the same bodywork techniques. The main difference is, German massage practitioners also incorporate therapeutic baths into their practice. This type of massage is not advised for people who are heat-sensitive due to their multiple sclerosis.
Acupressure originated in ancient China and is still used today to reduce pain and improve recipients’ quality of life. Acupressure practitioners alleviate muscle tension by applying pressure at specific acupoints on the body.
As one researcher summarized for the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, “Acupressure is a manually operated, needle-free, non-invasive, cost-effective, and non-pharmacological healing intervention to promote patients' well-being.”
Shiatsu is a Japanese bodywork practice that uses kneading, tapping, pressing, stretching, and soothing techniques to reduce muscle stiffness, alleviate anxiety, and address musculoskeletal pain. Unlike Swedish or German massage, shiatsu is typically performed over light clothing and without massage oil.
There are a few steps that people with MS should take to prepare for a massage-therapy appointment, especially if they have never experienced one before.
Your doctor is your partner during your treatment journey. As discussed earlier, massage is not for everyone. Make sure your physician thinks bodywork will be a constructive part of your treatment plan before scheduling an appointment with a massage therapist.
Any bodywork professional you consult will need to know about your diagnosis. Once informed, they can apply techniques that are known to help people with the condition and focus on the areas you need to be addressed. Tell them about any areas you want them to avoid, too — bodywork should never cause you pain.
A single appointment can only do so much. Although you may feel relaxed or comfortable immediately after a session, you can expect those effects to fade reasonably quickly. One study noted the positive impacts of bodywork therapy have focused on people receiving massage treatments one or more times a week. If you plan on incorporating massage into your treatment plan, you may want to ask your doctor how often you should schedule appointments.
MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 162,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with multiple sclerosis.
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