Massage for Multiple Sclerosis
Massage for multiple sclerosis is not a cure, but it can provide significant benefits without the risk of drug side effects. In fact, the authors of numerous studies have reported on the advantages of this complementary therapy for MS patients.
Massage has been around for thousands of years and has been a part of healing as well as religious, athletic, and sexual activities. However, it wasn’t until relatively recently that it began to take on a life of its own as a therapeutic tool.
Of the dozens of different types of massage available, the one that is generally recommended for people with multiple sclerosis is Swedish massage because it uses light pressure and long strokes. Swedish massage also is one of the more popular methods, and its basic techniques can be learned quite readily so family or friends can do it at home.
For people with multiple sclerosis, massage can help relieve muscle spasms and pain, reduce stress and anxiety, improve blood circulation, and enhance quality of life. Massage for multiple sclerosis will not, however, serve as a substitute for physical exercise.
What might you expect if you try massage for multiple sclerosis? Here are the findings of a few studies.
Massage and multiple sclerosis studies
The University of Miami Medical School was the site of a study of 24 individuals with multiple sclerosis who participated in a five-week massage experiment. Half of the participants received 45-minute massages twice a week while the other half were assigned to standard medical treatment. Compared with the controls, patients in the massage group experienced less depressed mood, lower anxiety, enhanced social function, better self-esteem, and improved body image.
At the University of Saskatchewan, the effect of Swedish massage was evaluated in 24 individuals who scored from 3.0 to 7.0 on the Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS). All the participants in the cross-over study underwent massage for four weeks.
Although the individuals did not fare any better on their walking distance or quality of life test scores, they perceived an improvement in their overall health based on their written comments.
In another study, experts compared the effect of massage therapy and exercise therapy on 48 individuals with multiple sclerosis. The participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups: massage therapy, exercise therapy, combination of massage and exercise therapy, and controls.
The individuals in the three treatment groups received three sessions per week for five weeks. Those in the massage group had Swedish massage, the exercise group practiced a combination of strength, endurance, balance, and stretch exercises, and the combination group did both. Individuals in the control group continued with their usual medical course.
Patients in the massage group reported significantly better improvement in pain, balance, and walking speed than did those in the exercise group. In the combination therapy group, patients reported significantly better improvement in pain reduction than did those in the exercise therapy group.
The authors concluded that Swedish massage could be more effective than exercise therapy. However, a combination of massage and exercise could be even more effective than exercise alone.
There’s another type of massage that has been shown to be helpful for people with multiple sclerosis: abdominal massage. One big advantage of abdominal massage is that you can do it on yourself, although you can have another person do it for you.
Abdominal massage can be helpful for individuals who suffer with constipation. In a four-week study, 30 people with multiple sclerosis and constipation were assigned randomly to a massage or control group.
Those in the massage group were taught how to do abdominal massage (or their carers were shown) and to perform it daily. The individuals in the control group were given advice on bowel management.
Those in the massage group showed significantly more improvement in constipation symptoms that did those in the control group. Abdominal massage may provide relief from constipation in MS patients without the need or a lesser need of medications.
Before starting any type of massage therapy—and whether you are going to a professional or your spouse, family member, or friend has learned how to do massage—you should speak with your healthcare provider. This is especially important if you have osteoporosis, any type of edema or swelling, a recent injury, spleen or liver enlargement, heart disease, cancer, or if you are pregnant.
If you have a spouse, partner, family member, or friend who wants to learn Swedish massage basics so he or she can help, it’s best to get instructions from a professional. Swedish massage is also available from licensed massage therapists and from students at massage schools (often at a reduced rate).
Hernandez-Reif M et al. Multiple sclerosis patients benefit from massage therapy. Journal of Body Work and Movement Therapies 1998 Jul; 2(3): 168-74
McClurg D et al. Abdominal massage for the alleviation of constipation symptoms in people with multiple sclerosis: a randomized controlled feasibility study. Multiple Sclerosis 2011 Feb; 17(2): 223-33
Negahban H et al. Massage therapy and exercise therapy in patients with multiple sclerosis: a randomized controlled pilot study. Clinical Rehabilitation 2013 Dec; 27(12): 1126-36
Schroeder B et al. The effects of massage therapy on multiple sclerosis patients’ quality of life and leg function. Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2014; 2014:640916