While the cartilage degeneration of arthritis cannot be reversed, massage is helpful to reduce muscle spasm and decrease compressive forces associated with the joint disorder. Beyond the damage to joint tissues, there are several factors involved in the pain of arthritis, most of which massage addresses directly. These include tense muscles caused by the body's natural response to protect a painful joint by tensing the muscles around it, fatigue, which can make your pain seem worse and harder to handle, and depression or stress resulting from limited movement or no longer being able do activities you enjoy.
Massage addresses your tense muscles by gently coaxing your tissues to relax and lengthen. When the muscles relax, pain and stiffness decrease, and joint mobility increases. Gentle passive joint movements, a technique which is part of traditional Swedish massage, will remind the body of the full potential range of motion in a joint. The long strokes (effleurage) and kneading strokes (petrissage) of Swedish massage increase circulation of blood and lymph in and around the joint. This cleanses tissues of irritating by-products from arthritic inflammation and improves nutrition to tissues. Better oxygenation and less stagnation combats fatigue, and swelling often lessens as excess fluid enters the circulatory system where it can be eliminated. With regular massage, natural joint lubrication is also likely to improve.
Fatigue and Stress
Massage relaxes the mind as rhythmic motions sedate the autonomic nervous system and engage the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is the "rest and digest" system, which is blocked when we are in the "fight or flight" stress mode of the sympathetic nervous system. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, are lowered after a massage session, while the body's production of natural pain-killing endorphins, such as dopamine and serotonin, is increased. The quality of restful sleep usually improves in the days following a massage. This gives the body a chance to further repair and restore energy levels.
Should I Get My Doctor's Permission?
"Massage is free of any known side effects and according to our results, clearly shows therapeutic promise," says David L. Katz M.D., associate adjunct professor in the Department of Epidemiology & Public Health at Yale School of Medicine and director of Yale's Prevention Research Center. "So-called 'alternative' treatments like massage are most important when conventional treatments are far from ideal. Currently available non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are often not well-tolerated by older adults with osteoarthritis. Cox-II inhibitors like Vioxx were developed as substitutes for traditional anti-inflammatory drugs, but pose highly-publicized toxicity problems of their own."
Generally, if you are healthy enough to exercise, you are healthy enough to receive massage. If degeneration of joints is present, you have rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis or osteoporosis, it is a good idea to get your doctor's permission, and get specific cautions to pass along to the massage therapist. Because of the profound effects massage can have on the flow of blood and lymph, some health conditions involving the heart, kidneys or liver can make massage inappropriate. Don't have bodywork or massage on "hot" inflamed or infected joints or if you are having a flare, have a fever, an infection or are coming down with an acute illness. It may make them worse. Tell your therapist if you are taking painkillers, and if you feel any pain.
How Often To Get Massage
The therapeutic value of massage lies in its regularity. According to Dietrich Miesler, founder of the Day-Break Geriatric Massage Project, "a regular, weekly massage is the best prevention to most of the problems of aging."
Try it for a month. "I like to compare it to the melting of a big pile of snow," states Miesler. "How long does it take to show obvious and lasting results? If you do localized massage for 10-15 minutes once or twice a week for a few months, you will notice obvious improvement and the process is self-accelerating."