The challenge with massage for multiple sclerosis is that no one approach is appropriate. The massage therapist must assess the unique set of symptoms of each person living with MS and choose techniques that might work for that person.
Some people with MS may get relief from deep tissue massage or trigger point therapy, while these massage techniques may create additional pain for other people. Some people can tolerate only gentle touch, such as myofascial release or light Swedish massage.
Why massage for multiple sclerosis?
Massage therapy can help reduce both the symptoms of MS and the effects of stress.
For joint stiffness, massage increases blood circulation in muscles around joints, increasing pliability of the tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissue and leading to easier movement of joints. To enhance the effects of massage between sessions, people with MS can do stretches and exercises that help maintain the range of motion and flexibility of joints.
For muscle weakness or atrophy, it's important to maintain the integrity of muscle tissue. Massage therapy helps by improving blood circulation.
For excess muscle tension or spasticity, many massage techniques reduce muscle tension, relieve pain, and increase circulation and muscle length to reduce spasm. Other massage strokes soothe the nervous system, temporarily reducing excess stimulation of muscle fibers.
For more information about techniques massage therapist use for people with MS, see Searching for Comfort: Alternative Therapies and Multiple Sclerosis.
Is massage for multiple sclerosis always a good idea?
According to Ruth Werner, author of A Massage Therapist's Guide to Pathology:
"First of all, let me offer some words of warning. In its acute, or "flare" stage, MS is an inflammatory condition. True, the inflammation is happening in the CNS where we don't have access, but the general rule for massage and acute inflammation is to let it pass.
"During an MS exacerbation, the body has a lot of activity to process. In my opinion (and absolutely anyone is invited to disagree), I think it's a better idea to let the dust settle before adding any more input in the form of massage. Some varieties of energetic work may be appropriate during MS flares, as long as the process is respected and the client is not overwhelmed or overchallenged by the stimulus being supplied."
More from Ruth at Working with Multiple Sclerosis Patients.
What about multiple sclerosis and massage therapy research?
Two studies listed at Massage Therapy Research Abstracts:
One study showed that MS patients who received massage were less anxious and less depressed immediately after the massage sessions. By the end of the study, their self-esteem had improved, they had a better body image and image of disease progression, and they functioned better socially.
The other study used reflexology on the feet and massage on the calves of MS patients. Compared to the control group, patients receiving reflexology and massage improved significantly in paresthesias, urinary symptoms, and spasticity. At a three-month follow-up, paresthesias remained significantly improved. (Paresthesias is a tingling, burning, tickling, pricking, or numb sensation of the skin.) More details about this study and two other reflexology studies are available at Massage Therapy and Multiple Sclerosis.
Image Credit: Mikael Häggström [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons