Can Massage Therapy Be Used to Treat Lupus?

By Jo Sahlin, Massagetique Correspondent
Stressed and holding head in pain in a cafe with cup of coffee ignored on table
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Lupus, a chronic condition, can be extremely painful and unpredictable and have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life. However, it is possible to live well with the condition while taking steps to prevent flare-ups. National Lupus Awareness Month, recognized in May, is a time to educate people about lupus and empower those living with it.

The role of a healthy immune system is to fight off foreign bacteria and viruses in order to protect us from threatening germs and diseases. But if the immune system misfires, it can create an attack on itself. This often results in extreme inflammation and possible organ damage. This condition is called lupus erythematosus, or just lupus.

There is currently no known cure for lupus. However, many medications and lifestyle changes can ease symptoms and improve quality of life for those living with the disease. Depending on the severity of symptoms and consequences of a flare-up, treatment may range from over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications to surgery, if internal organs are affected.

Using Massage to Treat Clients with Lupus

On the surface, massage therapy may seem like an appropriate treatment for lupus because it routinely relieves pain, promotes relaxation, and improves mobility. But acute lupus symptoms can cause lesions or so much pain that a person experiencing them cannot bear touch. Lupus first affects the body’s tissue and causes blood vessel inflammation. Pain can present anywhere from the top layers of the skin to deep in the joints. For some, the thought of massage for someone in pain as a result of lupus can seem daunting, or downright repelling.

Massage should never be used as a complete treatment for lupus or a replacement for other medical care. Additionally, some massage techniques can promote fluid circulation within the body that may actually exacerbate some issues related to lupus attacks. Deep tissue massage, for example, is almost never indicated with someone who has lupus, especially during or immediately following the flare-up. It is essential to receive approval from one’s medical team before pursuing massage as part of a lupus treatment plan.

Benefits of Massage for Lupus

Since massage cannot serve as immediate or acute care for someone with lupus, its effects–though no less beneficial–are largely secondary. Bodywork is best used to address co-occurring mental health problems or health issues that do not directly result from a lupus attack.

For instance, an individual with lupus may experience depression or stress related to their diagnosis or as a side effect of some medications. Depression can lead to poor sleep, fatigue, and even generalized aches and pain. Massage has been proven to not only treat the effects of depression, including fatigue and soreness, but also increase serotonin levels. Receiving bodywork regularly may mean a person with lupus can experience relief from depressive symptoms while also addressing the root chemical imbalance linked to depression.

Another common outcome of lupus is frequent headaches. People with lupus may get headaches more frequently, and headaches may coincide with full lupus flare-ups. Many studies have shown massage therapy, particularly the Trager approach and craniosacral therapy, can reduce the number and intensity of chronic tension headaches experienced by some individuals.

Tips for Using Massage in a Lupus Treatment Plan

The risks of massage therapy for people with lupus are far lower during remission. It is generally safe to receive bodywork at this time, after receiving approval from a primary care provider.

To ensure wellness and use massage to its full advantage in your health plan, consider the following:

  • Learn as much as possible from your health care team. The more you know about your health history and current condition, the more you can tell your massage practitioner.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Let your physician know when you begin massage treatments, and convey as much information as possible to your massage therapist about your experience with lupus. This includes current symptoms, past surgeries (if applicable), current medications, and any other illnesses you may have.
  • Don’t be shy about stating your needs. A massage therapist can only accommodate you if you are transparent about your comfort level. Perhaps you would prefer to receive massage while clothed or seated in a chair, for instance. A good bodywork professional will accommodate you and help you feel at ease.
  • Set a goal or intention for your sessions, and share this goal with your massage therapist. Improving mobility, decreasing stress, and getting more sleep are all examples of worthy goals that can be addressed in massage treatments.
  • Continue to talk to your massage therapist about your expectations. Check in after and between sessions about how the therapy is working and whether it can be adjusted to better suit your needs.

There are many types of bodywork that, when used carefully, can serve individuals who have lupus. If you’re considering massage treatment for yourself or a loved one who has lupus, always consult with a physician before scheduling an appointment. With this approval, massage practitioners may use bodywork at the client’s comfort level, so long as it remains safe to do so and no direct risks are present.

References:

  1. Beck, M. F. (2011). Theory & practice of therapeutic massage (5th ed.), 144. Clifton Park, NY: Milady.
  2. Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Diego, M., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2005). Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 115(10). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16162447
  3. Kirkbride, G. (2015, September 24). Massage therapy and lupus. Hospital for Special Surgery. Retrieved from https://www.hss.edu/conditions_massage-therapy-lupus.asp
  4. Lupus stories (2017). Lupus Research Alliance. Retrieved from http://www.lupusny.org/about-lupus/lupus-stories
  5. Massage & lupus (2012, February 15). American Massage Therapy Association. Retrieved from https://www.amtamassage.org/articles/3/MTJ/detail/2538
  6. Paige-Graeber, S. (n.d.). Lupus and massage. Retrieved from http://www.lupusny.org/about-lupus/fight-lupus-body-and-mind/lupus-and-massage
  7. Paz, Z. (2017). Lupus. American College of Rheumatology. Retrieved from https://www.rheumatology.org/I-Am-A/Patient-Caregiver/Diseases-Conditions/Lupus
  8. Quinn, C., Chandler, C., & Moraska, A. (2002). Massage therapy and frequency of chronic tension headaches. American Journal of Public Health, 92(10):1657-61. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447303
  9. Mooventhan, A., & Nivethitha, L. (2014). Effects of acupuncture and massage on pain, quality of sleep and health related quality of life in patient with systemic lupus erythematosus. Journal of Ayurveda & Integrative Medicine, 5(3): 186–189. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4204291
  10. Werner, R. (2009). A massage therapist’s guide to pathology (4th ed.), 13-17. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

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