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Using Massage Therapy To Treat Arthritis Pain

By Lubna Sheikh on 20th October 2020

massage-arthritis pain

Arthritis is an ailment or condition that affects an estimated 50 million of the adult population, and 300,000 of the population of children.

Close to 50% of those individuals that are diagnosed are limited in their daily activities due to symptoms attributed to arthritis.

There are many ways to manage arthritis and help alleviate these symptoms. One of those ways is through the use of massage therapy.

In this guide, you will learn about the different types of arthritis, the symptoms associated with arthritis, how massage therapy benefits arthritis, and the best form of massage therapy to help with arthritis pain.

You will also learn the risk factors for arthritis, how to communicate with your therapist and more.

What Is Arthritis?

Arthritis is the name given to cover the conditions that cause pain and stiffness in the joints and the tissues.

Arthritis does not just affect the joints and tissues, some types of arthritis affect the immune system and internal organs.

Causes Of Arthritis

While the specific cause of arthritis isn’t known, many things can trigger arthritis. This includes injuries, inflammation, autoimmune disease, repetitive movements, or an infection.

Although, currently there isn’t a cure for arthritis, there are ways to manage the symptoms.

Here are some techniques that are used to manage arthritis:

  • Medications such as NSAIDs (this includes acetaminophen, ibuprofen) are designed to help reduce swelling and minimize your pain
  • Exercise is important to help prevent your joints from getting stiff and will help with keeping you energized
  • Massages help loosen sore and stiff joints and will help increase blood flow to reduce swelling
  • Protecting your joints when participating in physical activities, or avoiding activities that put too much stress on the joints

Risk Factors For Arthritis

Many risk factors contribute to the onset of arthritis. Some of these risks are controlled and others can’t be controlled.

The controlled risk factors are ones that you can change to reduce your risk of arthritis.  Both controlled and uncontrolled risks factors are discussed below:

1. Controlled Risk Factors

Below, we list risk factors for arthritis that are within your control:

  • Weight: Eating healthy and managing your weight can help reduce the wear and tear on your joints that lead to arthritis flare-ups
  • Injuries to your joints: Injuries can be controlled by enjoying activities that are low risk, such as walking. This is very important if you have had prior injuries due to sports or other reasons. Having a prior injury increases the risk that you will develop arthritis
  • Smoking: Smoking is responsible for several illnesses and ailments including arthritis. Eliminating tobacco will reduce the risk of causing or worsening symptoms of arthritis

2. Uncontrollable Risk Factors

Below, we list risk factors for arthritis that are not within your control:

  • Age: The older you get the greater your chances of developing arthritis. You can’t change the fact that you are ageing, not even drinking from the fountain of youth will help
  • Gender: According to research studies, your gender can put you at higher risk for developing certain types of arthritis
  • Genetics: If arthritis is a common occurrence in your family, this can add to your risk factors of developing arthritis

Most Common Types Of Arthritis

There are over 100 different types of arthritis and depending on the type of arthritis that you have, the symptoms, pain, and joints that are affected will vary.

Each type of arthritis has different symptoms and affects different areas of the body.

However, the most common types of arthritis are listed below.

1. Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis causes chronic pain known as “flare-ups.” The pain that is often associated with this form of arthritis is stiffness and swelling, in multiple joints throughout your body.

When a person suffers from RA, their immune system is responsible for causing joint pain that is felt in the hands, wrists, elbows, knees, shoulders, or feet.

2. Osteoarthritis

This type of arthritis occurs as the result of the wear and tear of the joints. This form of arthritis gradually increases with age, due to inflammation and loss of cartilage in the joints.

It is the most common form of arthritis and causes pain, stiffness, swelling, and a loss in the range of motion in the affected joints. The joints that are often affected by osteoarthritis include the knees, hips, and spine.

3. Fibromyalgia

The pain associated with fibromyalgia is more than physical pain, it is musculoskeletal and is not a direct result of inflammation. People with fibromyalgia experience extreme tenderness causing a high sensitivity to pain and fatigue.

4. Juvenile arthritis

This type of arthritis is often referred to as childhood arthritis and affects around 300,000 individuals under the age of 18.

The exact cause of JA is unknown, however, it is suggested that the correlation of an underdeveloped immune system contributes to the pain felt in the bones and other areas of the body. It is said that initial symptoms of JA are oftentimes shrugged off as the flu or allergies.

Juvenile arthritis encompasses a wide range of conditions that affect children due to an autoimmune disorder or inflammation through the body.

Most children experience the same pain, stiffness, and swelling that is associated with adult arthritis.

5. Ankylosing spondylitis

This type of arthritis is a condition that can cause severe inflammation of the spine. The vertebrae in the spine become fused reducing the flexibility in the spine. This creates a hunched over posture and can make it difficult to breathe when it affects the ribs.

This form of arthritis is known to cause pain due to inflammation in the lower back, neck, shoulder, and hip joints. It develops slowly over time and the first symptoms associated with this type of arthritis include, swelling, stiffness (especially in the morning), and redness.

As the condition worsens it can cause severe stiffness from the vertebrae in the body growing together, making it difficult to move and breathe freely.

6. Gout

As with all forms of arthritis, there is no cure for gout. This type of arthritis develops from high levels of uric acid crystals in the body. It mainly affects the big toe joint, making it hard to move and walk. Typical symptoms of this type of arthritis include pain, swelling, redness, and tenderness in the affected joints.

7. Psoriatic arthritis

This type of arthritis correlates with psoriasis of the skin. Individuals that have psoriasis are at greater risk of developing psoriatic arthritis in the future.

According to the National Foundation for Psoriasis, this form of arthritis affects approximately 30% of individuals. Psoriatic arthritis can cause stiffness, pain, swelling, redness, and tenderness in the tendons and ligaments that connect to the bone.

Morning stiffness and decrease in range of motion are common along with swollen fingers and toes.

8. Lupus

This is an autoimmune form of arthritis that can cause severe inflammation. During periods of flare-ups, it can cause severe joint pain.

It usually involves swelling and tenderness in multiple joints while affecting internal organs, such as the heart and lungs.

If you have been diagnosed with any type of arthritis there is a wide range of symptoms that you could be experiencing. The most common types of arthritis have unique symptoms that affect more than just the joints, tissues, organs, or the immune system.

However, no matter what type of arthritis you have, there are common symptoms shared. This includes the following:

  • Pain in joint(s)
  • Inflammation/swelling
  • Stiffness
  • Fatigue
  • Redness
  • Decreased or lack of range of motion

The Main Benefits Of Massage For Arthritis

The main benefit of massage therapy is to help manage pain and alleviate some of the symptoms associated with arthritis.

Depending on the massage technique used and the type of arthritis being treated, the benefits received may vary.

Here are the benefits of using massage as a form of therapy:

  • Improve circulation or increase blood flow
  • Provide temporary pain relief
  • Increase levels of serotonin to boost your mood
  • Reduces stress levels which help with muscle tension and stiffness
  • Helps lower blood pressure which is related to the inflammation and swelling associated with arthritis
  • Helps relax the body to encourage sleep
  • Releases endorphins
  • Soothes the nervous system

For children that are diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis(JRA), a research study was performed on the benefits of massage.

According to the research study, children who received massages for 15 minutes a day over 30 days, benefited from reduced stress, pain, and levels of anxiety.

How Does Massage Work?

The way that a massage works depends on the level of pressure applied during the massage. Using light strokes, slightly touching the affected area will help you provide a stimulating effect.

On the other hand, a moderate level of pressure will give your body a relaxing feeling. Moderate level pressures will hit the areas of your body that are affected by symptoms of arthritis.

For the most part, when you receive a massage, blood is forced into your muscles. This process will remove toxins from your body and replace them with the necessary nutrients.

Communicating With Your Therapist

Massage therapy works best when you communicate with your therapist. When you begin massage therapy treatment you should have a consultation session where you are detailed about your issues and needs.

As you go to each session, you need to make sure that your therapist is aware of anything that may have changed.

This includes:

  • New or current injuries
  • Damages to your joint
  • Skin issues and allergies: Your therapist may use lotions or oils that can aggravate rashes, bruises, or cuts. These areas may be sensitive to touch, and the only way your therapist will know is through you
  • Let your therapist know what techniques are working and what techniques cause you more pain

During your massage, you should be communicating with your therapist as well. You should inform your therapist if the pressure is too light or too hard.

Your therapist expects feedback from you to help ensure satisfying results.

At the same time, you need to let your therapist know if they are hitting a painful or sensitive area, or if you are in severe pain so that they know to ease up or avoid certain areas.

Best Types Of Massages That Ease Arthritis Pain

There are several methods or techniques that can be used when receiving a massage. The type of arthritis symptoms or pains that you are dealing with determines the best massages that will alleviate the pain.

In general, you want to stick to massage techniques that involve light to moderate pressure. It is recommended to avoid intense pressure to prevent soreness as a result of the massage.

1. Full Body Massage

For children with JRA, the best technique to use is light strokes along the face, stomach, arms, and legs. This is followed by light kneading of the shoulders and neck and then lightly stroking the back, legs, and hands.

2. Swedish Massage

This type of massage is best for loosening muscles. This can be done by having your therapist apply light to deep pressure using circular movements, short to long strokes, and kneading.

The purpose of this type of massage is blood circulation. This type of massage is a good candidate for people with ankylosing spondylitis.

3. Hot Stone Massage

This massage technique involves placing hot stones on specific areas of the body to increase the blood flow. The stones are heated in a hot water hot stone warmer, and your therapist will use tongs to place the stones on the target areas throughout your body.

The hot stones will alleviate pain associated with stiffness, tension, and lack of circulation in the body. The placement of hot stones in certain areas helps to encourage muscle relaxation throughout the body.

4. Self-Massage

In between massage sessions and as part of your arthritis pain management regime, it is advised to perform a self-massage. You can control the amount of pressure that is applied to specific areas with massage tools and your hands.

You will find that kneading your affected areas of pain, your discomfort is decreased and you will gradually gain back range of motion.

**Note**- For best results when performing a self-massage, use oil, lotion, or heat before performing a self-massage to help loosen muscles.

If you are trying to massage hard to reach areas like your mid-back region or in between your shoulder blades, consider using massage tools to help you.

5. Myofascial Release

This massage technique is commonly used in children with JRA. When your therapist uses this technique, they are stretching and rolling the skin back and forth on your back, legs, and arms.

This helps to relieve pain without the use of tools, oils, lotions.

6. Rolfing

For a massage technique that helps relieve pain and helps you relax, rolfing works best. This technique focuses on long-term alignment while improving body function by manipulating the soft tissue.

Your therapist should ask you to stand before and after a massage session when using this technique to look at your posture and alignment from different angles while observing your gait when walking.

This form of massage focuses on relieving pain, helping the body relax, restoring posture, and helping with a range of motion.

It reorganizes connective body tissues, known as the fascia to help balance the body. Arthritis symptoms of discomfort, pain, and tension are alleviated through this massage technique.

7. Shiatsu

This massage technique has been known to work best for individuals with fibromyalgia. During a session using this technique, your therapist will focus on relieving headaches, fatigue, stress, and anxiety associated with pain from the lower back, neck, and joints.

The therapist will use a finger pressure or kneading massage to perform the massage without tools, oils, or lotions.

It is important to maintain your hydration before and after your massage because your muscles could be sore for a day or 2. This is a sign that your body is in the detoxifying process. As your body cleanses itself, your pain is reduced.

This is a full-body massage technique that focuses on working an energy flow throughout your body.

8. Trigger Point Massage

A trigger point massage is exactly as the name suggests. It is a technique that is used to focus on the various trigger points on your body and applying pressure to these muscle knots to help you relax.

Trigger points are tight areas within your muscles that can cause light to severe pain. A reduction in pain is often felt after the first session of a trigger point massage.

9. Acupuncture

This form of massage involves the insertion of needles throughout the body to create a balance in energy. It is thought that individuals suffering from pain have an imbalance in their life forces. Insertion of needles along the nerves and muscles throughout the body helps create a balance and stimulate a natural painkiller located in your body. Some researchers suggest that this form of massage therapy works well to combat pain associated with osteoarthritis.

10. Lymphatic

The lymphatic massage technique works best for inflammation. People with arthritis tend to have a lot of inflammation in their joints or muscles, which can cause excess fluid to build up in the body. The use of this massage technique will help drain this excess fluid and reduce inflammation resulting from an arthritis flare-up.

Considerations Before You Try Massage

Before you attempt to incorporate massage therapy into your pain relief management regime, you should speak with your rheumatologist or primary physician. They would be able to give you the green light if massage therapy is an option for you.

Other considerations that you will need to keep in mind when using massage therapy to treat arthritis pain are other health conditions that you may have.

These health conditions include the following:

  • High blood pressure
  • Varicose veins

If you have the following conditions that may or may not have been caused by your arthritis, you speak with a medical professional before you try massage:

  • Damaged or eroded joints
  • Flareup, rash, fever
  • Severe osteoporosis

Things To Do Before And After A Massage

Massage therapy is a technique used in conjunction with other methods to manage arthritis pain. Therefore, it is important to maintain your normal arthritis management regime in between massage sessions.

This will ensure greater success in your treatment of arthritis symptoms.

To increase your chances of reducing your symptoms caused by arthritis, you should follow these recommendations:

  • Make sure that you are hydrated before and after your massage. The massage itself can cause soreness and inflammation, therefore it is advised to drink plenty of water beforehand to prevent this
  • Research studies have proven the best way to handle your symptoms and pain through massage is with consistency. This means to follow through with a massage session at least once a week for 30-60 minutes at the minimum
  • After the massage, it is good to soak in a warm bath with magnesium such as Epsom salts. This prolongs the positive effects of the massage which includes loose muscles and a relaxing state
  • Remember that after a massage your body may endure a slight increase in inflammation. This is not permanent, it’s your body’s automatic healing response concerning the inflammation that you have in specific areas of your body
  • Always speak with your therapist and have your therapist assess your gait and posture before and after each massage session

Take Away

The key takeaways associated with arthritis include the following:

  • Symptoms are not curable however they are treatable
  • Many forms of arthritis can be treated through the use of massage therapy
  • If massage therapy is used as a way to manage arthritis symptoms, it is important to speak with your therapist
  • Arthritis is not discriminatory it affects men, women, and children of all ages
  • Many massage techniques can be used to address specific types of arthritis and the pain that is associated with each form
  • Massage therapy should only cause slight discomfort. You should never be in severe pain following a therapy session. If this happens, consult with your primary care provider and therapist

Massage therapy is not to be used as a sole treatment of arthritis pain. Instead, it is to be used in addition to other forms of treatment used to manage arthritis. It is important to keep in mind that for your arthritis pain management regime to be successful, you need to be consistent.

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