As part of multiple sclerosis (MS) awareness month in March, people in the MS community raise awareness and share solutions for living with the condition. Many have found massage therapy can be an effective treatment for some of the symptoms of MS, such as pain, fatigue, and inflexibility.
What Is Multiple Sclerosis?
People with multiple sclerosis have damaged myelin layers (fatty coatings that protect nerves). Nerve cells need these protective myelin sheaths to avoid damage and exposure to other body systems. Just like electrical wires, nerves need insulative and protective coatings to avoid short circuits, slow signals, and direct damage.
Physicians refer to areas of myelin damage as lesions. When MS patients experience lesions, their nervous systems can’t properly transmit information from below the affected area up the spinal cord to the brain. MS can cause inflammation, scarring, and damage in both brain and spinal cord tissues.
While MS is not genetic, researchers have noted the condition sometimes does run in families. Environmental factors also may play a role in the development of the condition. People of any age can get MS, but it typically affects adults. Women have twice the chance of developing MS as men.
Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis
The symptoms of multiple sclerosis can vary widely from one person to the next as well as throughout the course of the condition. The many symptoms associated with MS depend on the location of lesions in the body, among other factors.
People with MS typically feel tingling, numbness, and pain in one or more limbs. These symptoms usually occur on only one side of the body at a time. People with MS may feel weakness and numbness in only one leg or on only one side of their torso. Some may experience partial or complete loss of vision, which usually occurs in one eye at a time. They may feel pain in their eyes, see double, or feel dizzy. They may have related physical and mental health issues such as limited memory, mood swings, depression, and seizures.
MS can manifest as fatigue, slurred speech, and a lack of coordination. MS patients might have muscle spasms and stiffness that can make walking difficult, and some might experience paralysis in their legs. Some people with MS feel sensations similar to electrical shocks when they bend their necks, especially when bending forward. They might also have difficulties in bladder, bowel, and sexual function.
Symptoms may come and go as the condition progresses, and they typically worsen over time. There may be periods of relief and relapse. Some MS patients may experience months or even years of symptom-free living.
If you or a loved one experience any of these symptoms, seek the professional opinion of a physician and discuss the possibility of a multiple sclerosis diagnosis.
Can Massage Therapy Help People with Multiple Sclerosis?
Research has highlighted massage therapy’s value for treating symptoms and stress in MS patients. One study found people with MS commonly use massage therapy as a complementary treatment. The study’s 24 participants, all diagnosed with MS, reported overall health improvements after receiving Swedish massage therapy for four weeks.
Another study found massage therapy benefited MS patients more than exercise therapy, and combining both massage therapy and exercise therapy also produced good results. Researchers studied 48 MS patients and randomly assigned them to four groups: massage only, exercise only, both treatments, and a control group. They found the patients who received massage therapy enjoyed greater increases in pain relief, balance, and walking speed than those who received exercise therapy alone. The patients who received both treatments also experienced significant pain relief.
A pilot study on MS patients found massage therapy relieved study participants’ fatigue and pain symptoms. Researchers from this study highlighted massage therapy’s ability to improve quality of life for people with MS.
Always check with your doctor before starting massage therapy or other treatments for multiple sclerosis. People with certain diseases and conditions should avoid massage therapy—as should anyone with deep-vein thrombosis (blood clots). Certain people (pregnant women, cancer/heart patients, etc.), can benefit greatly from massage therapy, but only with physician guidance about appropriate types of massage therapy.
You might ask your doctor to refer you to a massage therapist who specializes in dealing with your specific needs. Many physicians today maintain lists of preferred massage therapists.
- Backus, D., Manella, C., Bender, A., & Sweatman, M. (2016). Impact of massage therapy on fatigue, pain, and spasticity in people with multiple sclerosis: A pilot study. International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, 9(4), 4–13.
- Mayo clinic staff. (2015). Multiple sclerosis: Symptoms and causes. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/multiple-sclerosis/symptoms-causes/dxc-20131884
- National Multiple Sclerosis Society. (n.d.). Massage and bodywork. Retrieved from http://www.nationalmssociety.org/Treating-MS/Complementary-Alternative-Medicines/Massage-and-Body-Work
- Negahban, H., Rezaie, S., & Goharpey, S. (2013, December). Massage therapy and exercise therapy in patients with multiple sclerosis: A randomized controlled pilot study. Clinical Rehabilitation, 27(12), 1126-36. doi:10.1177/0269215513491586
- Schroeder, B., Doig, J., & Premkumar, K. (2014, May). The effects of massage therapy on multiple sclerosis patients’ quality of life and leg function. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. doi:10.1155/2014/640916