The complementary therapy may help relieve pain, improve circulation and reduce stress.
By Heidi Godman, Contributor
The Benefits of Therapeutic Massage for MS
Massage therapy is most effective for people with early-stage MS. (Getty Images)
You may think of massage as a way to relax or relieve tired muscles. But for people with multiple sclerosis, massage can be much more than that. “We see a therapeutic change when we help people with MS. They look and feel better than when they came in, and they move better,” says Nancy Porambo, a licensed massage therapist in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, who specializes in neuromuscular massage therapy.
MS and Muscle Challenges
With MS, the body attacks the covering of the nerves (called the myelin sheath) as well as the nerve fibers in the brain, optic nerves and spinal column. In most MS patients, this damage occurs in waves or flare-ups, and then goes into remission. In a smaller percentage of MS patients, the attack never stops.
The damage left behind by the attacks and the scars that form as the body attempts repairs make it harder for nerves to communicate. This can cause many problems, such as cognitive decline and mood disorders. Damage to the central nervous system also means that muscles may not get the message to coordinate properly, they may freeze or become rigid (spastic), they may tire easily, hurt and weaken without use. “When you have scarring to the myelin sheath, it doesn’t allow for a normal flow of electrical impulses. Movements slow down. It’s not coordinated or smooth,” Porambo says.
Resulting muscle problems can lead to trouble walking or maintaining balance and difficulty using your arms or hands to eat, dress, bathe or use a computer.
How Massage Helps
Therapeutic massage for MS has a physical effect beyond relaxation. Significant benefits for MS patients appear to be reduced spasticity and pain, improved circulation and increased muscle and joint flexibility.
“I have had some patients report good results in terms of less pain, less spasticity and better mobility with massage,” says Dr. Robert Shin, a neurologist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington.
Porambo says stress reduction also winds up being an important benefit of therapeutic massage for MS. A small 2016 study suggested that massage therapy was associated with an improved quality of life, along with decreased fatigue and pain.
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Massage therapists use a number of techniques such as kneading, compression, pressure, effleurage (long, gliding strokes) and deep, circular movements to increase blood flow to muscles. “It allows the tissues to become hydrated with blood and helps to restore normal muscle tone,” Porambo explains. “It takes just the right amount of pressure to induce blood flow, soften tissues and assist in reducing rigidity.”
Reduced spasticity then allows for relaxation and pain relief. “The body slows down, and the sympathetic nervous system gets a break, which is rejuvenating and allows the body to heal,” Porambo says.
That relaxation also leads to reduced stress. “It calms the body and restores balance,” Porambo says. “Sometimes that one hour in therapy is the only quiet time they have to rejuvenate themselves physiologically and psychologically.”
Types of Massage
Porambo says a massage therapist will first evaluate the MS patient to find problem areas and determine how to treat them. A therapist may then use a number of approaches, such as:
- Swedish massage. “This a lighter massage, the least invasive,” Porambo explains. “It uses kneading and effleurage."
- Deep muscle massage, which includes strokes that work deep into the tissues.
- Neuromuscular massage therapy, which focuses on trigger points causing pain or spasm (for example, neck problems that lead to pain in the arms and hands).
Porambo says massage therapy is most effective for people with early-stage MS. "When you get to the late stages, spasticity may be harder to reverse,” she explains.
Massage therapy would be inappropriate in MS if you:
- Are experiencing a flare-up. “We’d only exacerbate that by going in too deeply, and it could be painful,” Porambo says.
- Struggle with neuropathy – pain, numbness or tingling – in the lower legs and toes. “Pressing too deeply wouldn’t be helpful,” Porambo explains.
Otherwise, massage therapy appears to be safe and potentially helpful. “As long as the massage therapist is reputable and as long as the patient is in relatively good physical condition, I would not have any safety concerns about the treatment,” Shin says.
What to Look For
If you’re interested in pursuing therapeutic massage for MS, get the green light from your doctor first. Then, look for a licensed massage therapist who is trained to work with people with MS. “A trained therapist will know how much pressure to place on tissue and understand the depths of tolerance so the nerves aren’t overstimulated,” Porambo says.
She also points out that massage is just one component of feeling better. Exercising, eating a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep and taking the appropriate MS medications are all crucial parts of a treatment plan. “Managing MS can be stressful,” Porambo says. “Massage therapy can help people on many levels.”