Massage and Bodywork for the Alzheimer’s Patient

By Jo Sahlin, Massagetique Correspondent
Senior woman sits outside while person's hand is massaging her forehead in front of background of trees
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Chances are you know someone who has Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. You may have even served as a caregiver in some capacity for a loved one with dementia. Currently, about 5.1 million Americans live with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. But with as many as four family caregivers looking after each person with the disease, it impacts more than just those who have been diagnosed.

The longer Alzheimer’s progresses, the more likely it is to affect one’s overall health and relationships with others. And while bodywork, like any other treatment currently available, is unlikely to reverse the course of Alzheimer’s or help a patient regain memory, it has the potential to significantly improve quality of life for anyone living with the disease.

How Does Alzheimer’s Affect the Body?

Alzheimer’s disease, or AD, is characterized by plaques and tangles of proteins on brain cells. These plaques cause cells to die and parts of the brain to atrophy. Cells become unable to communicate with each other, and this results in a loss of brain function. A person with AD is unable to process new information and access memories because the part of the brain associated with each of these tasks, the hippocampus, shrinks.

Initially, effects of AD may seem relatively innocent: minor lapses in short-term memory, brief periods of disorientation, and difficulty retaining new information. During these early stages, people with Alzheimer’s may be alert and emotionally positive. Later AD symptoms can be more severe and may include deeper confusion about events, changes in character and mood, more serious memory loss, and distrust of one’s family and caregiving team.

But while the most prevalent issues associated with Alzheimer’s are related to memory and brain function, cognitive degeneration can also have profound physical effects, including compromised ability to speak, swallow, and walk. People with AD who get disoriented or lost may be more likely to fall, and it is not uncommon for patients to have difficulty performing daily tasks such as bathing, dressing, and eating.

How Can Bodywork Treatments Help Alzheimer’s Patients?

Most bodywork modalities are supportive for AD, depending on the client’s comfort level. Massage has been shown to improve overall quality of life, lessen agitation, contribute to better sense of orientation, and lead to more positive social interaction for those with AD.

Certain modalities have been shown to specifically target various symptoms of Alzheimer’s:

  • Therapeutic touch reduces agitated behavior such as pacing, wandering, and vocalization.
  • Similar to therapeutic touch, slow-stroke massage can reduce physical signs of agitation and ease AD patients who are resistant to care.
  • Reiki treatments can help reduce anxiety and depression in those with AD and dementia while also promoting relaxation and improving overall well-being.
  • Craniosacral therapy can reduce inflammation in the brain, which may help people with chronic migraines and poor sleep. In a TEDx Talk in 2016, Michael Morgan, LMT, CST-D asserts that a combination of craniosacral therapy, exercise, and modified diet may help AD patients regain memories and even reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s. More research is needed to verify these benefits, however.
  • Multisensory treatment approaches like music and art therapies are not direct types of bodywork, but they can improve overall cognitive state and reduce anxiety and depression related to AD.
  • Other alternative therapies, such as light and dance therapies, can help AD patients able to participate by easing stress, anxiety, irritability, and emotional issues related to the disease.

In a more abstract way, massage and bodywork place an emphasis on person-centered treatment, which addresses all needs and contributes to more comprehensive care. When a person receives more than the standard attention to a specific issue, and when they are seen as a person instead of simply as a patient, greater healing can take place, and overall well-being is likely to improve.

It is worth noting that caregivers for those with AD—especially those who are family members or friends—can experience extreme stress and depression related to the time and emotional investment that goes into patient care. Anyone serving in this role may also benefit from receiving massage or another type of bodywork as self-care to relieve stress and symptoms of depression.

Contraindications for Massage as Treatment for Alzheimer’s

Some people with advanced AD may become agitated, hostile, or irritable, which can impact the extent to which they find massage treatments enjoyable or helpful. Other clients may not be able to communicate clearly because of verbal impairments associated with AD, which can impede the therapist’s ability to fully address their needs. Additionally, because many AD patients are elderly, they may have co-occurring health conditions that preclude massage as an effective treatment for any aspect of AD. As always, it is best to consult with a primary care provider before seeking any type of bodywork as support for someone with Alzheimer’s.

As the population of the United States ages, more and more people are predicted to start experiencing Alzheimer’s symptoms, which tend to start around age 65 and progress rapidly. Research continues to emerge regarding cures, preventative measures, and ways to improve quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s-related memory impairment. While many treatments and solutions are being explored, the massage and bodywork fields continue to offer promising results.

References:

  1. About Alzheimer’s disease: Statistics. (2016, January 28). Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. Retrieved from https://www.alzfdn.org/AboutAlzheimers/statistics.html
  2. Allison, N. (1999). The illustrated encyclopedia of body-mind disciplines, 106, 356. New York City, NY: Rosen Publishing Group.
  3. Hawranik, P., Johnston, P., & Deatrich, J. (2008). Therapeutic touch and agitation in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. Western journal of nursing research, 30(4), 417-434. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0193945907305126
  4. Kontos, P. C. (2005). Embodied selfhood in Alzheimer’s disease: Rethinking person-centred care. Dementia, 4(4), 553-570. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1471301205058311
  5. Miesler, D. (2003). Massage and the Alzheimer’s patient. Massage Bodywork Magazine, December/January 2000. Retrieved from http://www.massagetherapy.com/articles/index.php/article_id/275/Massage-and-the-Alzheimer%92s-Patient
  6. Morgan, M. (2016). 2 deaths, 1 disease. TEDx Talk. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YSh4oR8xc0
  7. Ozdemir, L., & Akdemir, N. (2009). Effects of multisensory stimulation on cognition, depression and anxiety levels of mildly-affected Alzheimer’s patients. Journal of the neurological sciences, 283(1), 211-213. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022510X09004390
  8. Rowe, M., & Alfred, D. (1999). The effectiveness of slow-stroke massage. Journal of Gerontological Nursing, 25(6), 22-34. Retrieved from http://www.healio.com/nursing/journals/jgn/1999-6-25-6/%7B80dc9bd2-e52d-4c1f-aadb-c37e2eaf6376%7D/the-effectiveness-of-slow-stroke-massage
  9. Salach, M. D. (2006). The effects of reiki, a complementary alternative medicine, on depression and anxiety in the Alzheimer’s and dementia population (doctoral dissertation, San Francisco State University). Retrieved from http://bodynsoulsynergy.com.au/PDF/ReikiPDF07.pdf
  10. Werner, R. (2009). A massage therapist’s guide to pathology (4th ed.), 223-226. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  11. What is Alzheimer’s? (2017). Alzheimer’s Association. Retrieved from http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_what_is_alzheimers.asp#symptoms
  12. Woods, D. L., & Dimond, M. (2002). The effect of therapeutic touch on agitated behavior and cortisol in persons with Alzheimer’s disease. Biological research for nursing, 4(2), 104-114. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1099800402238331

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