Massage Therapy to Alleviate Symptoms of Juvenile Arthritis

By Jo Sahlin, Massagetique Correspondent
Teenager in pink and black workout clothes with long ponytail receives bodywork treatment from physical therapist
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Juvenile arthritis refers to the range of autoimmune or inflammatory conditions affecting children and adolescents under the age of 16. Currently, nearly 300,000 children in the United States experience some disease under the umbrella of juvenile arthritis, including juvenile lupus, Kawasaki disease, fibromyalgia, idiopathic arthritis, and others. As more information about these issues surfaces, evidence continues to support use of alternative therapies, such as massage, to address symptoms and improve quality of life for people affected.

Symptoms and Effects of Juvenile Arthritis

Depending on the diagnosis, different forms of juvenile arthritis (JA) might affect the joints, muscles, organs, connective tissue, and skin. JA can be very difficult to diagnose—there is no single exam or blood test that can reveal which type a person has. A doctor will likely recommend a specific test depending on a child’s symptoms.

Each of the various rheumatic conditions associated with JA will exhibit in different ways. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), the most common form, is called idiopathic because it has no known cause or predictable onset. Symptoms resemble those of arthritis often affecting older individuals: joint inflammation, changes in bone structure, and discomfort or pain.

JIA may be accompanied by eye inflammation (oligoarticular JIA), psoriasis on the skin surrounding the joints (juvenile psoriatic arthritis), fever and rash (systemic JIA), or other issues that indicate different forms of JA. Like JIA, Kawasaki disease involves inflammation of the joints but is also characterized by inflammation of the blood vessels and may lead to heart conditions. Lupus, though not common in children and adolescents, can affect skin, lungs, blood vessels, joints, brain, and kidneys, potentially wreaking havoc on nearly every organ system in the body.

No matter the way arthritis manifests, or the symptoms experienced, it can significantly impact a child’s adolescent years and the later life, as well as the lives of the child’s family and loved ones. Affected children may be more likely to miss school and decrease participation in sports or physical activities, which can compound problems since inactivity has been shown to worsen arthritis symptoms. They may also experience psychological and social issues such as depression, low self-esteem, or negatively impacted peer relationships.

Treatment Options for Children with Juvenile Arthritis

There is no known cure for JA, but remission is possible with early detection and proactive treatment methods. Researchers recommend as much exercise as the child’s ability allows, regular stretching, proper nutrition, physical therapy, and occupational therapies. In extreme cases, splints, orthotics, and surgery can help correct growth differences caused by JA.

Complementary therapies, including massage and other types of bodywork, have been proven effective for children and adolescents. In fact, arthritic people of any age can benefit from bodywork, as long as symptoms are not acute and do not present complications that preclude touch therapy.

Massage and Bodywork Therapies for JA

Children who received massage for just 15 minutes per day showed improvements in decreased pain related to arthritis. They also experienced lower stress and anxiety as a result of massage. In this study, parents administered the massage, so the therapy was cost-effective and efficient for families. A professional massage may be more thorough and comprehensive.

A bodywork practitioner may choose almost any modality to address JA, though most therapies are not indicated for direct local application. In other words, the therapist is not likely to massage the knuckles if a child has arthritis affecting the hands but will use a modality that supports the lymphatic and immune systems for greater overall comfort and joint decompression.

Various types of hydrotherapy, including both heat and cold therapy, can help alleviate pain and discomfort caused by arthritis. Hot compresses and ice packs can be applied directly to arthritic areas of the body, or individual body parts may be submerged in a contrast bath (alternately in hot and cold water) to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.

Contraindications of Massage for JA

Massage or bodywork focusing on the specific area afflicted by arthritis can potentially increase pain or exacerbate symptoms during flare-ups and is not recommended. Individuals who have types of JA that affect the skin or cause irritation and inflammation should consider consulting their doctor before proceeding with bodywork treatments.

Beyond easing the pain and direct symptoms of JA, touch therapy and other forms of bodywork also offer benefit by increasing levels of serotonin and dopamine–the chemicals that improve mood. Youth receiving massage for JA may experience greater happiness and quality of life as a result, and peer relationships and co-occurring mental health issues may improve.

References:

  1. Beck, M. F. (2011). Theory & practice of therapeutic massage (5th ed.), 119. 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), 1397-1413. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00207450590956459
  3. Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Seligmen, S., Krasnegor, J., Sunshine, W., Rivas-Chacon, R., … & Kuhn, C. (1997). Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis: benefits from massage therapy. Journal of pediatric Psychology, 22(5), 607-617. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9383925?dopt=Abstract
  4. Moore, F. B. (1964). Manual of hydrotherapy and massage, 48, 50, 53. Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
  5. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis treatment. (2017). Arthritis Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/juvenile-idiopathic-arthritis-jia/treatment.php
  6. Schanberg, L. E., Anthony, K. K., Gil, K. M., & Maurin, E. C. (2003). Daily pain and symptoms in children with polyarticular arthritis. Arthritis & Rheumatology, 48(5), 1390-1397. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/art.10986/full
  7. What is juvenile arthritis? (2017). Arthritis Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/types/juvenile-arthritis
  8. Werner, R. (2009). A massage therapist’s guide to pathology (4th ed.), 145-147. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

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