How Massage Therapy Can Treat Fibromyalgia Pain

Fibromyalgia—a musculoskeletal condition that affects 1-3% of the world population—distorts how the brain processes pain signals, causing widespread physical pain and tenderness. Medical researchers have shown massage therapy relieves pain in those who experience fibromyalgia and can help alleviate other symptoms of the condition.

What Is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia causes chronic pain throughout the body. People with the condition typically experience an increased sensitivity to pain, feel fatigued, and have difficulty sleeping. They may have trouble focusing, experience stiffness, and endure frequent tension headaches. Some people experience depression, headaches, spastic colon, and abdominal pain or cramping.

More than 7 million Americans have fibromyalgia, which typically affects more women than men. People with severe fibromyalgia may remain bedridden for days at a time from severe fatigue and other symptoms. Due to the lack of effective medical interventions for fibromyalgia, many people turn to complementary treatments such as massage therapy for healing and relief.

Massage therapy often outperforms the other chronic pain treatments people with fibromyalgia may try. For example, a research team from the University of Miami and the Duke University School of Medicine found study participants who received massage treatments fared better than those who had transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) and a control group who received a placebo TENS treatment. To treat chronic pain, physicians commonly apply electrical TENS pads to a patient’s skin to stimulate nerve centers. The researchers observed reductions in pain, fatigue, stiffness, and insomnia in the study participants who received massage therapy treatments.

Do I Have Fibromyalgia?

If you feel widespread pain (such as a dull ache) that persists for more than three months, talk with your doctor to see if your symptoms point to fibromyalgia. Be open to other diagnoses, as people can easily confuse fibromyalgia with other types of chronic pain, such as myofascial pain syndrome.

Though medical scientists have not yet found the cause of fibromyalgia, your physician can give you a specific diagnosis for the condition. Fibromyalgia usually affects 18 specific body areas, and people who have the condition typically only experience pain in these particular “tender points,” which are widespread throughout both sides of the body.

People with fibromyalgia also have unique sleep difficulties. Though they may frequently wake up due to their pain, they can sleep for long periods of time due to intense fatigue. They often still feel fatigued upon waking as well as throughout the day.

Massage therapy has the potential to ease many fibromyalgia symptoms, including sleep difficulties. A recent examined 74 people with fibromyalgia. The study participants who received massage therapy instead of a placebo had less anxiety, slept better, experienced greater pain relief, and reported a better quality of life. Participants continued to experience the benefits of massage therapy for as long as a month after treatment and reported better sleep quality as many as six months later.

Why Is Fibromyalgia Hard to Treat?

Doctors have yet to determine an exact cause of fibromyalgia, making it a difficult condition to diagnose and treat. They can test for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as other causes of chronic pain, but there is no specific test for fibromyalgia. A blood test can identify blood cell markers in people with fibromyalgia, but the test by itself may not lead to a fibromyalgia diagnosis.

Experts believe some events (such as stressors, traumas, hormone changes, or certain chemicals) can trigger the abnormal amounts and behaviors of certain neurotransmitters associated with fibromyalgia. For example, people with fibromyalgia often experience reduced serotonin levels (and likely clinical depression).

Physicians believe fibromyalgia starts in the brain and then manifests in the body as a low-grade inflammation of fascia, other connective tissues, and muscle fibers. Fascia and related tissues surround muscles and run throughout the body. They determine how much muscles can contract and stretch and provide space for nerves and blood vessels. People with fibromyalgia often experience extreme muscular tension, which can compress muscles, restrict blood flow, and block nervous system pathways.

Can Massage Therapy Treat Fibromyalgia?

Massage therapy holds many benefits for people with fibromyalgia. In a 2015 review of 10 research studies on massage therapy and fibromyalgia, a research team found massage helped people reduce pain, anxiety, and depression related to the condition. People who received massages experienced high levels of pain relief and moderate amounts of emotional healing, which endured well beyond the end of the treatment period.

The researchers examined various types of massage therapy for fibromyalgia and found myofascial release improved stiffness, fatigue, and quality of life. For these symptoms, manual lymphatic drainage techniques and shiatsu massage produced more results than connective tissue massage and Swedish massage.

Another researcher noted the short- and long-term benefits of massage therapy for people with fibromyalgia, recommending one to two gentle, painless massage treatments per week with gradual increases in intensity (depending on the severity of the person’s condition).

Scientists continue to examine the mechanisms of massage therapy and the root causes of fibromyalgia. Research shows massage therapy helps people with chronic pain, as well as those recovering from injuries and surgery. People who receive regular massages sleep better, have less anxiety and depression, and experience improved range of motion. The benefits of massage therapy can lead to pain relief and better quality of life for many.


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Understanding the Elements of Shiatsu Massage

Today, shiatsu has become a brand name synonymous with massage and relaxation. Retailers offer shiatsu chairs, shiatsu pillows, shiatsu cushions, shiatsu foot massagers, and many other devices. Massage therapists of all sorts practice shiatsu massage around the globe, in many popular variations and styles. But what is the true, genuine shiatsu technique? How did its creators practice it, and what are the elements that go into it?

What Is Shiatsu Massage?

Like acupressure, the shiatsu massage tradition involves both physiological and physical healing. Like many massage therapists, shiatsu practitioners use finger pressure, stretches, and manipulation; however, unlike their Western counterparts, they conduct this bodywork on clients’ energy centers and pathways. Shiatsu, which originated in Japan, comes from knowledge passed down by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners.

What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

For more than 2,000 years, Chinese healers have passed down the secrets of massage, herbalism, acupuncture, acupressure, qigong, and tai chi. Other Asian countries have similar therapeutic traditions, such as the Japanese herbal healing practice of kampo. Japanese shiatsu practitioners employ traditional Chinese medicine theories and techniques of chi energy, just like their counterparts in Chinese acupuncture and acupressure; however, they have developed shiatsu into a unique, more modern healing modality.

What Is Chi?

Chi (also called ki or qi) is the life energy that flows through our bodies. When this healing flow is blocked, health may fade and illness may arise. Practitioners of many disciplines that grew from traditional Chinese medicine seek to release blockages in their clients, restore a proper balance of yin and yang (among other factors), and create healing and wellness.

What Are Meridians?

Tokujiro Namikoshi, the founder of shiatsu massage, discovered his natural healing ability while treating his mother’s rheumatoid arthritis. He found certain points on her limbs were cold and stiff; when he rubbed them, her condition improved. He didn’t know it at the time, but he had discovered a blocked meridian point.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, 12 interconnecting meridians run throughout the body. Each has a corresponding internal organ (stomach, liver, kidney, spleen, gall bladder, etc.). By manipulating various points along these meridians, practitioners can release blockages and promote healing.

Who Founded Zen Shiatsu?

Shizuto Masunaga, the creator of Zen shiatsu, grew up in a family of bodywork practitioners. He studied psychology and the medical science of massage. He taught psychology at both Tokyo University and the Japan Shiatsu School.

Masunaga named his Zen shiatsu after the Zen philosophy, which has great influence on Japanese culture. People who follow the Zen philosophy seek to understand their basic nature and achieve enlightenment, typically by training the mind through meditation. Masunaga applied this Zen approach to his family’s shiatsu bodywork, along with the Western science he learned at university.

Masunaga popularized his system across Japan, and other practitioners later brought it to the United States. He modified the traditional Chinese medicine system of 12 meridians by extending them out from the internal organs to the arms and legs. Zen shiatsu clients rest on futons laid on the floor so practitioners can apply pressure with fingers, elbows, and other parts of the body from all directions and with more body weight than the simple finger pressure of other styles.

What Styles of Shiatsu Exist Today?

As shiatsu gained popularity and became a worldwide phenomenon, it split into many branches. Today’s shiatsu therapists focus on chi energy and diagnosis, physiological and psychological healing, relaxation and happiness, wellness, lifestyles, diet, healthy communities, and much more.

One of Masunaga’s students, Tomas Nelissen, founded the International Academy for Hara Shiatsu, focusing on holistic health of people through their hara, or midsection, where mental and physical health and well-being can be stimulated. Macrobiotic shiatsu practitioners teach balanced living and eating and barefoot shiatsu, and they also follow the traditional acupuncture meridian system. Five Elements shiatsu practitioners keep to the classic theories of traditional Chinese medicine, including the classic meridian system and yin/yang balance.

What Are the Five Elements?

In traditional Chinese medicine, practitioners recognize five elements: fire, water, earth, wood, and metal. Known as the Five Element Theory, it is believed that these five elements are able to impact or influence the body in multiple ways. Practitioners of shiatsu, acupuncture, and acupressure follow this theory by learning to combine the various elements in their sessions.

What Are Yin and Yang?

In the Yi Jing (“Book of Changes”), ancient Chinese thinkers and healers used the ideas of yin and yang (two opposite, but complementary energies) to understand the world around them and create a basic cosmology. They also believed in six types of chi, as well as the five elements. As Chinese scientists began to emerge and further classify nature, they combined these ideas with practical skills to create many medical traditions, including acupuncture, acupressure, herbalism, and massage.


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