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Finding Relief

From Arthritis to Diabetes, Massage Therapy Improves Quality of Life

For some, massage therapy is a short-term intervention to help with injury and rehabilitation. For others, massage is their salve to reduce the stresses of a hurried and chaotic life. For those living with chronic conditions, including arthritis, autoimmune diseases, hypertension, diabetes, and kidney failure, massage therapy is often integrated into conventional health care to provide relief. Here is just a sampling of research validating massage for these conditions.


Massage, by itself or in combination with aromatherapy, can be an effective strategy to help manage symptoms and improve function in people who have arthritis. Some studies looked at wholebody relaxation treatments, while others examined bodywork, including self massage, targeted to the affected area. (See studies by Perlman, Nasiri, Tosun, Atkins, Peungsuwan, Zwoli´nska).


Autoimmune diseases, including lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma, present challenges that massage therapy can address. Pain, fatigue, quality of life, mood, and self-efficacy (the belief that one can succeed and thrive in spite of obstacles) are all positively affected by massage for people who live with autoimmune diseases (Schroeder, Finch, Poole). In addition, these specific benefits have been found:


Massage therapy is a popular intervention among people with lupus (Morgan), but it hasn’t been extensively studied yet. Massage therapy, along with acupuncture, helped improve sleep and quality of life for a person with lupus in one case report (Mooventhan).

Multiple sclerosis (MS)

A specific type of massage at the injection site for MS medication may help patients tolerate side effects (Márquez-Rebollo), and abdominal massage has been seen to help with constipation among people with MS (Coggrave).

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

Moderate-pressure massage (compared to lightpressure massage) helped decrease pain and increase grip strength in one study (Field), and foot reflexology was seen to improve pain and fatigue for people with RA as well (Metin).


Many people with scleroderma have trouble with mobility in their hands and arms. Lymphatic massage and other types of bodywork have been demonstrated to be helpful with hand function, joint motion, and skin compliance (Bongi, Horváth, Poole).


Multiple systematic research reviews have found that massage, along with antihypertensive drugs, is more effective for managing hypertension than drugs alone (Xiong, Liao). A clinical trial found that blood pressure readings dropped after massage, and remained below baseline for 72 hours or more (Givi). These findings are confi rmed by several other studies and systematic reviews, which conclude that massage therapy can be a helpful part of hypertension treatment, but doesn’t replace medication (Walaszek, Liao, Niu, Mohebbi). The type of massage appears to matter in this situation: in one important study, Swedish massage reliably lowered blood pressure, but trigger-point work and sports massage raised blood pressure readings, at least temporarily (Cambron).


Skilled massage therapy has a number of documented benefits to offer people with diabetes. It has been seen to temporarily lower blood glucose, although how long this lasts is unpredictable (Sajedi). Massage alone, or along with exercise, has improved some biomarkers for this disease (Wändell) and improved circulation in the legs (Castro-Sánchez). Foot reflexology and Thai massage have also been shown to improve tissue health (Silva), accurate sensation in the feet (Hasneli), and balance (Chatchawan, Tütün), all of which are critical for those with diabetes.


Only gentle bodywork is appropriate for people living with renal failure, but among these patients, massage may help with fatigue and depression (Raina, Cho). Dialysis patients often seek massage (Ceyhan), and find it helpful for itching, leg cramps, and general quality of life (Shahgholian, Mastnardo, Bullen).


Research supports massage therapy for fibromyalgia, specifically for pain, anxiety, quality of life, and sleep (Castro-Sánchez, Oliveira). The best results were seen with long-term treatments, so this suggests that people with fibromyalgia should commit to several weeks of regular massage to derive the most benefit (Kalichman, Li, Yuan).

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