Go Ahead, Try Massage Therapy for RA Joint Pain

Many arthritis patients wonder if massage therapy is right for them. The answer may lie in which type of arthritis they live with, how active their disease is at the time, and the skill level of their massage therapist. Massage is nonetheless becoming a more widely-recognized way to cope with the pain and stiffness of arthritis.

Every year, the Arthritis Foundation teams up with Massage Envy to host a “Healing Hands for Arthritis” event that raises funds and awareness for all types of arthritis. This year’s event will be held across the nation on Wednesday, September 17. Ten dollars from every one-hour massage or facial bought at Massage Envy that day will be donated to the Arthritis Foundation.

Massage therapy is traditionally used for improving flexibility and circulation, easing pain, and reducing stress and anxiety. But many rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients still shy away from massages out of fear. Ellen Blair of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who has lived with rheumatoid arthritis for 24 years, says she is afraid that “massage will be painful” and says she “doesn’t want to get hurt.”

Learn More About Rheumatoid Arthritis Doctors »

Is Massage Good or Bad for RA?

According to a study presented at the 2007 American Massage Therapy Association National Convention, “Therapeutic massage treatments, while able to achieve qualitative muscle release in an affected joint region, can also positively affect the physiological systems of a patient with RA and help to alleviate and prolong the deteriorating effects of the disease.” A 2013 study also showed that patients with RA in the upper limbs benefited from moderate pressure massage therapy.

“I feel that massage has helped alleviate some of my symptoms. I had a one-hour massage weekly to biweekly for about six months. I believe that by working my muscles it relaxed them, and had less pull on my joints. Plus, it relaxed me, and helped with general pain perception,” said Robin Spector Edds, an RA patient from Flat Rock, Michigan. 

Many doctors agree. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases claims that, when done by a trained professional, methods like massage can help control pain, increase joint motion, and improve muscle and tendon flexibility. Events such as Healing Hands for Arthritis bring more awareness to the idea of using massage as a treatment for RA and other inflammatory types of arthritis.

"Massage can be beneficial for temporary relief for patients with RA. Swedish massage is the most common type that RA patients ask for," said Kindle Fisher, an exercise physiologist and massage therapist at Greentree Chiropractic in Pittsburgh, Pennyslvania. "Each person has different pain levels and pain tolerances, so it is up to the massage therapist to communicate with the patient, and for the patient to provide proper feedback.

"A benefit to massage for arthritis patients is that it increases blood flow to certain areas of pain, which helps promote healing and gives a temporary relief," she added. "However, I believe that deep tissue massage may be a negative treatment plan for some patients with RA. The pressure during the massage can be intense and may cause more pain and stiffness to some patients."

Massage Therapy: Which Type Is Right for You? »

The Arthritis Foundation suggests researching different types of massages, as every RA patient is different. Robyn Alexander of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, said, “I love a deep tissue massage. I get a biweekly 30-minute massage and then every 4 to 6 weeks, a one-hour full body massage. It made a difference in my mobility, stress levels, and sleep. I can always tell a difference when I miss one and my therapist is sensitive to where I might be hurting or swollen.”

The Foundation of a Good Massage

A good massage starts with a good massage therapist. When looking for a knowledgeable masseuse, patients should ask whether the therapist is a member of the American Massage Therapy Association, whether they are licensed to practice in their state, and whether they are trained in any specific type of massage.

A massage therapist should get to know their patients and find out about their disease history.

"Massage is a great way for people with rheumatoid arthritis to feel better and improve their range of motion so they have more mobility. It's crucial for a person with rheumatoid arthritis who decides to receive a massage to express any existing joint pain or flare-ups to their massage therapist prior to and during their session to prevent any discomfort and ensure a relaxing experience," said Dr. Patience White, vice president of public policy and advocacy at the Arthritis Foundation.

Once you find a good massage therapist, you’ll want to decide on the type of massage you need. You should also consult your rheumatologist beforehand to find out what type they recommend.

Patients should keep in mind that a massage is a complementary treatment, and is not meant to replace medication. The National Institutes of Health goes a step further, saying, “In general, there is not enough scientific evidence to prove that any complementary health approaches are beneficial for RA, and there are safety concerns about some of them. Some mind and body practices and dietary supplements may help people with RA manage their symptoms and therefore may be beneficial additions to conventional RA treatments, but there is not enough evidence to draw conclusions.”

Find Natural Relief for Arthritis Pain »

To Get a Massage or Not: Making the Choice

If you’re uncertain whether or not a professional massage is for you, you can start at home by practicing self-massage on affected joints, and go from there. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies showed that a group of adults with arthritis of the hand and wrist had lower anxiety and depression, less pain, and increased grip strength after four weeks of self-massage.

Some massage practices also offer “mini” massage sessions of 10 to 15 minutes to focus on one area. A short massage may give you an idea of whether you would like to take the plunge and try a longer or deeper massage therapy session in the future.