Massage is a healing method that has been used for thousands of years. It was a recommended therapy in ancient China and Egypt. Many common forms of massage now used in the United States are derived from Swedish massage, which was developed by a Swedish physician in the nineteenth century. Massage may be provided on its own, or it may be a component of other forms of alternative healing, including Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and aromatherapy.

Treatment Method

Massage usually is done on a specially designed table in a warm, quiet room with soft lighting and relaxing music. The individual receiving the massage is partially or completely undressed; a sheet or towel is used to cover parts of the body that are not being massaged. The therapist uses a variety of techniques, including pressing, stroking, rubbing, slapping, and tapping. Oil or lotion usually is used to make the movements smoother.

Massage may be effective through several possible mechanisms. First, massage appears to relax muscles (although only limited studies have formally evaluated this effect). This effect may be helpful for conditions that are worsened by muscle stiffness, such as headaches, neck pain, and low back pain. Also, massage may release chemicals known as endorphins, which reduce pain. Through a theoretical process known as gate control, which presumes that only a certain number of impulses may reach the brain from a specific body part, stimulation by massage in a painful area may decrease the number of pain impulses received by the brain from that area. Finally, the simple act of touching that occurs with massage may convey positive feelings that are difficult to evaluate rigorously, such as caring, comfort, and acceptance. Touching is a simple and possibly beneficial act that often is missing from interactions between patients and physicians and other mainstream health care providers.

Studies in Multiple Sclerosis

Few studies have specifically evaluated massage therapy in people with multiple sclerosis (MS). In a study reported in 1998, 24 people with MS who received massage therapy were compared with those who did not (1). In this small study, massage therapy was associated with multiple benefits, including increased self-esteem, improved social functioning, and reduced anxiety and depression. In addition, those who received massage had better self-perception of their bodies and the progression of their disease. Another small trial found that slow, stroking massage movements over the spine were associated with improvement in anxiety and in the electrophysiologic measures of muscle stiffness (2).

Symptoms that may occur with MS have been studied in other conditions. However, nearly all these studies have serious limitations; consequently, the results must not be taken as definitive. Some studies have shown a reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression. It is often stated that spasticity or stiffness in the arms or legs may improve with massage; studies in this area are surprisingly limited. Some studies indicate that abdominal massage may improve constipation. Several forms of pain, including low back pain and cancer-related pain, may improve with massage. The National Cancer Institute recognizes massage as a nonmedication therapy for pain. In addition to its effects on specific symptoms, massage also may have a beneficial effect on self-esteem and overall quality of life through its “healing touch” properties.

Side Effects

Massage usually is well tolerated. Minor adverse effects that have been reported include headache, muscle pain, and lethargy. There are also rare, isolated reports of more serious complications, such as bleeding into the liver with deep abdominal massage.

To prevent complications, there are certain conditions for which massage should be avoided or practiced with caution. The following guidelines should be followed:

  • Recent injuries, such as fractures and open skin lesions, should not be massaged.
  • Abdominal massage should be avoided by people with ulcers or enlargement of the liver or spleen.
  • People with fever, infection, clotted blood vessels (thrombosis), and jaundice should avoid massage.
  • Those with cancer, arthritis, and heart disease should consult a physician before receiving massage therapy.
  • Women who are pregnant should only receive massage from therapists who are experienced in pregnancy massage.

Consult your doctor before choosing any treatments for MS.

 

 

Footnotes:

  1. "Multiple sclerosis patients benefit from massage therapy" by M. Hernandez-Reif, T. Field, T. Field, and H. Theakston, from Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies
  2. "The effects of slow stroking on spasticity in patients with multiple sclerosis: A pilot study" by B. Brouwer and V. S. de Andrade, from Physiotherapy Theory and Practice