In a recent study, weekly, 60-minute massage sessions were shown to reduce symptoms of pain and improve mobility for people with knee osteoarthritis.

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Massage is a safe, natural way to help relax the muscles and bring movement back into the joints. Getty Images

People who suffer from arthritis may want to consider getting a massage now and then.

According to researchers from Duke University, weekly, full-body massage sessions can significantly improve joint mobility and alleviate pain caused by osteoarthritis — a degenerative disease in which the cartilage in the joints wears down and causes pain, swelling, and stiffness.

Massage can be a safe and effective complement to ongoing treatment of knee osteoarthritis, at least in the short term, suggests a new study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine mid-December.

In order to understand the effect massage had on joint pain, researchers recruited 200 people with osteoarthritis in their knees.

The participants were randomly separated into three groups: those who got a one-hour, weekly Swedish massage; another who received a light-touch control treatment; and those who received no treatment outside of their usual care.

The study participants were then randomly reassigned to one of the three groups every two weeks. Every two months, they completed a standardized questionnaire that measured their pain, stiffness, and physical functionality — including how well they could climb stairs, stand up, sit down, walk, and get out of a car.

The researchers discovered that after eight weeks, massage significantly improved the participants’ scores of pain, stiffness, and physical function compared to light-touch and usual care.

After 52 weeks, massage maintained the same improvements that were observed eight weeks in, however, there were no additional benefits.

“Osteoarthritis is a leading cause of disability and affects more than 30 million people in America,” lead author Adam Perlman, MD, MPH, program director of the leadership program in integrative healthcare at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, said in a press release. “Medications are available, but many people with osteoarthritis experience adverse side effects, causing the need for alternative treatment. This study shows that massage has potential to be one such option.”

Osteoarthritis causes severe inflammation and swelling in the joints, which can be extremely painful and make daily activities and exercise challenging.

Extra swelling in joints significantly limits functionality and mobility — especially in weight-bearing joints like the hips, knees, and spine.

“For decades the primary drug treatment for osteoarthritis has been NSAIDs [or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs], the primary injection treatment has been cortisone, and the primary surgery has been knee replacement,” said Matthew G. Michaels, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist with RestorePDX in Beaverton, Oregon.

However, NSAIDS can be toxic and damage the kidneys, stomach, and heart and should be used with caution by people with diabetes and those age 65 and older, Dr. Michaels said.

Cortisone isn’t a cure-all, either.

“Cortisone injections are a powerful anti-inflammatory and can help temporarily, but in the long term may accelerate the degeneration of the joints,” he said.

Cortisone can also weaken the immune system and cause nausea, difficulty breathing, dizziness, and weight gain. And people who have type 1 or type 2 diabetes should steer clear of cortisone because it can increase blood glucose levels.

Massage is a safe, natural way to help relax the muscles and bring movement back into the joints.

“[Massage] compresses the soft tissues and ‘irritates’ them to bring blood flow. It helps loosen up the tightness in soft tissue and helps with fluid mobility,” said Karena Wu, PT, a board-certified clinical specialist in orthopaedic physical therapy and owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy in New York, New York.

Massage can also increase range of motion in the surrounding muscles, reduce swelling by moving fluid out of the area, and activate the muscles, Wu said.

Many physical therapy practices already offer various types of massages to treat arthritis pain. But each type of massage has a different purpose and effect on the body.

For example, Swedish massage has more of a light-medium touch and is meant to reduce stiffness and soreness in joints, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Deep-tissue massage requires more intense, focused pressure to treat severe tension in the muscles and surrounding connective tissue.

“The type of massage depends on the individual and what their desire and tolerance is,” Wu said. “If massage goes too deep, it can cause some tenderness and actually reduce muscle activation, so the most effective would be a medium-touch massage.”

In general, it’s best to use massage as an add-on to other treatments. When used in conjunction with physical therapy and medications, kneading the muscles can take away the often-intense stiffness and soreness caused by osteoarthritis.

Massage can also be a relaxing, soothing way to take your mind off arthritis discomfort for a while.