Massage therapy provides many benefits, especially for those who experience pain. Osteoarthritis of the knee can cause pain that may not always be fully addressed with standard treatment options. With regular massage therapy, many people with osteoarthritis are able to manage their pain, increase their physical capabilities, and enjoy active lives.
What Is Osteoarthritis of the Knee?
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a disease of the joints that worsens over time. It affects approximately 50 million people in the United States. The personal and financial costs of OA may include:
- More than $185 billion on OA medical care each year
- More than $10 billion in losses for businesses each year due to absenteeism
- Serious side effects from pharmaceuticals that target OA
- Limited effectiveness from medication options, so patients often have to choose between surgery and debilitating pain
In recent decades, millions of people have explored the potential of massage therapy to relieve the pain of many ailments, such as physical injuries, cancer, diabetes, musculoskeletal conditions, and others. If their needs are not fully met with other treatment options, many OA patients may turn to massage therapy for relief.
Is Massage Safe for Osteoarthritis of the Knee?
Researchers from the Weill Cornell Medical College and the New York-Presbyterian Hospital reviewed previous research papers on massage and other complementary therapies. They pointed out the safety of massage therapy for OA patients, as well as its healing effects.
They determined massage therapy is safe and effective for OA patients, even when combined with exercise therapy. Research shows patients who receive massage therapy in addition to standard treatments often fare better than those who only receive standard treatments.
For example, researchers at Spain’s University of Alcala studied 18 women who received both massage and exercise therapy or exercise therapy by itself. After six weeks of treatment, the patients who received both therapies showed better results even three months after treatment.
Efficacy of Massage Therapy for Osteoarthritis
A research team at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey studied 68 adults with OA who received Swedish massage for eight weeks (biweekly for the first four weeks and weekly for the second four weeks). Participants experienced a reduction in pain and stiffness, as well as an increase in physical function, including range of motion and walking speed.
Research shows self-massage may also have benefits for OA. A pair of post-doctoral researchers at the Holos University Graduate Seminary observed 40 adults with OA diagnoses. For six weeks, study participants followed a 20-minute narrated self-massage program (both supervised and unsupervised). These people experienced pain and stiffness reductions (though they did not experience the range-of-motion benefits associated with massage by trained therapists).
A research team at the Duke University Medical Center and the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center studied 25 veterans with OA who received eight weekly massage therapy sessions. In addition to finding the same positive effects as other researchers (pain reduction, stiffness alleviation, and increased function), these researchers pointed out the positive inclination of the study participants toward massage. Given the popularity, safety, and affordability of massage therapy (especially home therapy), the researchers highlighted the potential of massage for treating a variety of physical and mental health issues (especially post-deployment).
Can Massage Therapy Help OA Patients Walk More Easily?
A research team from China used six infrared cameras and a motion analysis system to study the gaits of 20 women with OA. Participants received traditional Chinese massage three times a week for two weeks.
In addition to the pain relief, lowered levels of stiffness, and greater mobility noted by other research teams, the researchers observed improvements in specific physical functions. They found massage therapy helped the study participants walk significantly faster and increase the distance between steps. The researchers also measured the total time patients put weight on their joints and saw substantial improvements.
In a follow-up study, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey team partnered with colleagues from the Duke and Yale Schools of Medicine to study a group of 125 OA patients. The researchers gave study participants massage treatments either weekly or biweekly for either 30 or 60 minutes.
The researchers found 60 minutes of massage a week provided more benefits than the other durations and intervals studied. Participants who received 60-minute massages experienced decreased pain, increased range of motion, and faster walk speeds. Even those who received massages only biweekly for 30 minutes experienced less stiffness than those who did not get massages.
Future of Massage Therapy Research for OA Patients
As more people experiment with complementary therapies to address health, wellness, and quality of life, researchers continue to pay attention to these treatments. It is recommended you talk with your doctor about what types of massage are safe to try, explore your options, find a qualified massage therapist, and see what works best for you.
- Atkins, D. & Eichler, D. (2013). The effects of self-massage on osteoarthritis of the knee: A randomized, controlled trial. International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, 6(1), 4–14.
- Cortés, G., Gallego, I., Lázaro, N., & Pecos, M. (2014). Effectiveness of massage therapy as co-adjuvant treatment to exercise in osteoarthritis of the knee: A randomized control trial. Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation, 27(4), 521-529. doi:10.3233/BMR-140476
- Juberg, M., Jerger, K., Allen, K., Dmitrieva, N., Keever, T., & Perlman, A. (2015). Pilot study of massage in veterans with knee osteoarthritis. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 21(6), 333–338. doi:10.1089/acm.2014.0254
- Perlman, A. I., Ali, A., Njike, V. Y., Hom, D., Davidi, A., Gould-Fogerite, S., . . . Katz, D. L. (2012). Massage therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee: A randomized dose-finding trial. PLoS ONE, 7(2). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030248
- Perlman, A. I., Sabina, A., Williams, A., Njike, V., Katz, D. (2006). Massage therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee: A randomized controlled trial. Archives of Internal Medicine, 166(22), 2533-2538.
- Qingguang, Z., Min, F., Li, G., Shuyun, J., Wuquan, S., Jianhua, L., & Yong, L. (2015). Gait analysis of patients with knee osteoarthritis before and after Chinese massage treatment. Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine, 35(4), 411-416.
- Shengelia, R., Parker, S., Ballin, M., George, T., & Reid, M. (2013). Complementary therapies for osteoarthritis: Are they effective? Pain Management Nursing, 14(4). doi:10.1016/j.pmn.2012.01.001
- Yip, Y. & Tam, A. (2008). An experimental study on the effectiveness of massage with aromatic ginger and orange essential oil for moderate-to-severe knee pain among the elderly in Hong Kong. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 16(3), 131-138. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2007.12.003
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