Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory type of arthritis, in which the immune system attacks the tissues. While it can affect other body tissues, it commonly affects the joints causing joint inflammation. Managing rheumatoid arthritis can be a challenging task. Moreover, the symptoms, their severity, and the trigger factors that cause flare-ups vary from person to person. In the recent past, mind-body interventions to manage rheumatoid arthritis have become increasingly popular, including yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and body-based therapies.1 While all are open to the inclusion of complementary therapies, getting a deeper understanding of their use and weighing their benefits is important.
Is It Good To Massage Rheumatoid Arthritis?
There are several treatment options available for rheumatoid arthritis. However many people also consider natural treatments, physical therapy, and oil massage in addition to the mainline treatment. Hence, there are many questions revolving around some complementary methods. One of the common questions is – is it good to massage rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic, poly-articular, chronic, autoimmune joint disease that can damage the hands and feet, and affects 0.5% to 1.0% of the population worldwide.2 In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the tissues of the joints and other organs. As joints are more commonly affected, the autoimmune disorder is known to cause joint inflammation. This causes pain, stiffness, and limited joint movement. An acute episode of inflammation is called a flare-up when the symptoms worsen and also cause widespread inflammation in the body. Fever, malaise, and flu-like symptoms are common during such times. The affected joints are tender, warm, and swollen and the range of motion is restricted.
Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis is aimed at controlling the disorder, inflammation, and pain. Hence, disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and non-steroidal inflammatory drugs are commonly used. Apart from these, other treatment modalities have been applied and massage therapy is one of them. It is believed that massage therapy can reduce muscle tightness and increase joint mobility thus helping in improving the physical movement of the affected joint.
So if you are wondering whether it is good to massage rheumatoid arthritis, here is what scientific studies have to say. One study was conducted on 42 adults with rheumatoid arthritis in the upper limbs and was assigned moderate pressure or light pressure massage therapy. This study was carried out for a period of 4 weeks, during which a therapist massaged the affected arm and shoulder once a week and the study participants did self-massage once every day. By the end of the study period, the moderate pressure massage group had less pain, greater grip strength, and greater range of motion in their wrist and large upper joints, mainly elbows and shoulders.3
Another study in which 60 patients with rheumatoid arthritis participated, showed that Swedish massage can be effective in reducing pain and the need to use painkillers in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.4
With regards to whether it is good to massage rheumatoid arthritis, a case presentation on myofascial release shows promising results. Myofascial release (MFR) is a manual therapeutic technique used to release fascial restrictions, that may be causing neuromusculoskeletal and systemic pathology. This massage technique was used on a 54-year-old woman who presented with signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and collagenous colitis. She showed improvement in pain, fatigue, cervical range of motion, digestive function, and quality of life. Thus, the application of sustained-release MFR techniques can help improve comorbid symptoms and overall quality of life in people with rheumatoid arthritis.5
Several other studies have shown that the application of massage therapy can bring positive changes and help in reducing symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Most of them work by relieving the muscle tension, allowing the muscle to lengthen and relieve the strain on the joints. Some studies also showed that after a massage therapy patients with rheumatoid arthritis showed reduced stress hormone cortisol levels.6
In a study on 51 subjects with rheumatoid arthritis, aromatherapy massage and reflexology were applied. Within the study period of 4 weeks, the pain and fatigue scores significantly decreased in the aromatherapy massage and reflexology groups as compared to the control groups.7
What Things Should You Keep In Mind When Planning A Massage Therapy for Rheumatoid Arthritis?
While the benefits of massage for rheumatoid arthritis can be many, it is equally important to evaluate every case and appropriately plan a therapy program with an expert after consulting the treatment doctor. Massage therapy has many techniques and only an expert can decide which one is the safest and the most effective in a particular case.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when planning a massage therapy for rheumatoid arthritis.6
Avoid massage on open wounds, irregular or inflamed skin, or when there is fever or deep vein thrombosis.
In patients with rheumatoid arthritis, assess a flare-up or an acute condition. Avoid massage when there is an acute inflammation of the joints. There may be red, swollen, warm, and acute pain.
Deep tissue massage or trigger point therapy can cause a flare-up of inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Hence, these are either avoided or applied very carefully. These techniques should be given slowly, at intervals to give time for the body to react and avoid if they cause flare-ups.
Some manual techniques in massage therapy may involve joint stabilization. These may be difficult to apply and are not advisable in some patients with rheumatoid arthritis having joint damage or erosion. Such treatments are best avoided in patients with rheumatoid arthritis or applied with great caution and under medical supervision.
Consider other associated medical conditions when planning massage therapy for rheumatoid arthritis. It is best to exercise caution in case of varicose veins, hypertension, and severe osteoporosis.
Massage therapy should be comfortable and help relieve the pain. If there is any discomfort and increase in pain, inform the massage therapist and plan a better way out after consulting the treating doctor.
It is good to massage rheumatoid arthritis, as it can relieve pain, improve joint movement, and can make living with rheumatoid arthritis easier. However, massage is not advisable in certain conditions and during flare-ups in people with rheumatoid arthritis. The type of massage and frequency that is safe for an individual case is best decided by the treating doctor.
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