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Lupus and The Human Touch: Massage Therapy for Symptom Management

 

As someone with lupus, you may feel like you’ve exhausted all of your options for symptom relief. You may have grown weary of trying one prescription after another and while you may experience some benefits, it may not be enough. You may still find yourself struggling with the aches, pains and stiffness that comes with lupus and on top of that, you may find yourself feeling stressed and anxious a good deal of the time. What if there was a therapy that could help you cope holistically with both the physical and emotional symptoms of chronic disease? Could massage therapy really work for you?

Introduction

A $16 billion industry, massage therapy has seen a robust increase in revenue over the year. In 2018, the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) reported that an average of 21% of adult women and 16% of adult men indicated they received a massage between July 2016 and July 2017. 43% of those individuals reported having received a massage to help manage pain and soreness or improve overall feelings of well-being. Hopefully this will leave you feeling encouraged that there are options to try when practicing self-care that don’t always involve medication or other invasive treatments.

The Benefits of Massage Therapy for Individuals with Lupus

Massage therapy has shown promise as a way to alleviate – or lessen the intensity of – some of the symptoms of autoimmune disease including lupus. In a study conducted in 2014 by the University of Miami Medical School, researchers reviewed the effects of massage therapy in various populations including those who suffer from chronic pain. The researchers concluded that “massage has resulted in reduced pain in all the studies we have conducted on chronic pain conditions [such as]…migraine headaches…chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis.” The researchers also add that anxiety decreased in these same individuals with chronic pain conditions.

Along with its ability to relieve anxiety, massage therapy offers other mood enhancing benefits as well.  In “How Massage Affects Your Mood,” Marian Paglia, L.M.T. discusses that massage therapy can positively affect the nervous systems by doing the following:

  • Activate the parasympathetic state of our nervous system, which will reduce levels of adrenaline and norepinephrine.
  • Decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol and give the immune system a boost.
  • Increase levels of serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin – our “happy” neurotransmitters. You can read more about these chemicals in “Happiness – The Wonder Drug of Well-Being.”

The Best Massage Techniques for Individuals with Lupus

Though massage is an individual choice – some people like it, some people don’t – there are massage practices that may be more beneficial for some of us than others. It’s really important to not only take your own physical limitations in mind, but your emotional limitations as well. While physical pain causes a great deal of discomfort, having someone else touch those places that hurt the worst may not be your cup of tea even though it is done with the best of intentions. The decision to see a massage therapist should be done only after thoughtful consideration has been given and you have spoken to your healthcare practitioner about what is best for you.

Here are a few of the most popular massage therapies that may help you cope with your lupus symptoms:

  • Swedish Massage Therapy (SMT) is what most of us normally think of when we think an indulgent day at the spa. Often done with lotions or massage oils, the massage therapist typically works in broader strokes along your body and then targets specific problem areas as needed. It should be painless, gentle and without adverse effect.
  • Myofascial release causes the fascia – the tough membranes that connect, wrap and support muscles – to relax, which in turn causes the muscles to loosen. The intensity of this massage may vary and will be something you will need to discuss with your therapist depending on your unique goals. Myofascial release was my first experience with massage therapy, and while it’s not exactly the “spa” experience I was expecting, the therapist was very attentive to my needs and the next day, I really felt like all the kinks had been worked out!

It is interesting to note that in 2011, Spanish researchers followed a group of individuals with fibromyalgia as they participated in a 20-week myofascial release program. Participants who received a 90-minute massage once a week experienced “significantly improved…pain, anxiety, quality of sleep, and quality of life.”

  • Japanese Shiatsu massage stimulates acupressure points to change energy flow and balance as well as stimulate the digestive system. The practitioner will apply pressure to specific points of the body for about two to eight seconds as they move rhythmically along the body. Wong also notes that Shiatsu has proven effective at relieving sinus problems, sciatica, neck pain, and even pain from arthritis.
  • Reflexology is an ancient Chinese practice that cannot only soothe aching hands and feet, but also the rest of your body. There are specific reflex areas on the hands and feet that correlate to organs and other areas of the body. When pressure is applied to these specific areas of the hands and feet, the individual feels pleasure, which reduces stress and induces comfort – all while fully clothed.

When You Shouldn’t Get a Massage

Practitioners advise against receiving massage therapy during a lupus flare and to avoid techniques like hot stone massage. Practitioners also recommend avoiding any vigorous or deep tissue techniques.

For individuals with cutaneous lupus, consult your healthcare practitioner before starting any massage therapy programs. If it is decided that massage therapy is right for you, it’s important to consider than many massage therapists use lotions and oils in their practice that may aggravate skin. It’s best to let your therapist know of your condition and any allergies prior to receiving a massage. Many therapists can use unscented, low-allergen lotions or skip the lotions and oils entirely – just ask!

Choosing a Massage Therapist and Setting Expectations

Always speak with your healthcare practitioner first when considering integrative healthcare practices like massage. Your practitioner may even be able to refer you to a great massage therapist based on your unique needs!

You will always want to make sure you choose a licensed massage therapist. Many licensed massage therapists receive clients from referrals and word-of-mouth. Check with friends and family and anyone else you may know with lupus or autoimmune disease to see if they can refer you to someone they know. It is really important to find a therapist who has experience working with individuals with lupus and/or other autoimmune disease. Paglia suggests checking with a local massage therapy school to see if they know of therapists who would be able to work with you or if any of the students – under supervision, of course – would be able to work with you.

Some questions you will want to consider asking a therapist before your first appointment include:

  • Where did they receive their training?
  • Do they offer a flexible rate?
  • Does the therapist need a note or script from my healthcare practitioner before my appointment?
  • What is the cancelation policy?
  • How will I be positioned during the massage?
  • What kind of oils, lotions or aromatherapy is used during the massage?
  • Can I leave any clothing on?
  • How should I let the therapist know if I’m feeling discomfort or pain?

In Conclusion

While massage therapy may not be for everyone, there are many practices today that can be modified as well as practitioners who take a more sensitive approach with their clients, especially individuals with lupus. Done well, massage can be a rewarding, relaxing, and even energizing experience that can curb stress, ease pain, and relieve tension. Be patient with yourself and know your limitations, and remember – a good therapist will listen and work with you through kindness and compassion and will be accepting of where you are in the process of experiencing massage. Ultimately, massage may prove itself to be another self-care skill to stash in your symptom-relief toolkit.

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References

Aguilera-Manrique, G., Castro-Sanchez, A., Mataran-Penarrocha, G., Moreno-Lorenzo, C., Quesada-Rubio, J. (2011). Benefits of massage-myofascial release therapy on pain, anxiety, quality of sleep, depression, and quality of life in patients with fibromyalgia. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3018656/pdf/ECAM2011-561753.pdf
Field, T., (2014). Massage therapy research review. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5467308/pdf/nihms644177.pdf
Is massage therapy beneficial for people with autoimmune disease. (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.phoenixhelix.com/2016/04/16/is-massage-therapy-beneficial-for-people-with-autoimmune-disease/
Massage & lupus. (2012). Retrieved from: https://www.amtamassage.org/articles/3/MTJ/detail/2538/massage-lupus
Massage therapy industry fact sheet. (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.amtamassage.org/infocenter/economic_industry-fact-sheet.html
Paglia, M. (2017). How massage affects your mood. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/thrive-global/how-massage-affects-your-mood-334663052773
Wong, C. (2018). 9 most popular types of massage. Retrieved from: https://www.verywellhealth.com/most-popular-types-of-massage-89741?print

Author: Liz Heintz

Liz Heintz is a technical and creative writer who received her BA in Communications, Advocacy, and Relational Communications from Marylhurst University in Lake Oswego, Oregon. She most recently worked for several years in the healthcare industry. A native of San Francisco, California, Liz now calls the beautiful Pacific Northwest home.

All images unless otherwise noted are property of and were created by Kaleidoscope Fighting Lupus. To use one of these images, please contact us at [email protected] for written permission; image credit and link-back must be given to Kaleidoscope Fighting Lupus.

All resources provided by us are for informational purposes only and should be used as a guide or for supplemental information, not to replace the advice of a medical professional. The personal views expressed here do not necessarily encompass the views of the organization, but the information has been vetted as a relevant resource. We encourage you to be your strongest advocate and always contact your healthcare practitioner with any specific questions or concerns.