According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, arthritis is the leading cause of disability, reduced quality of life and high health care costs. Of the 46 million Americans who suffer from arthritis, nearly half say that arthritis limits their normal activities. The good news is that recent studies suggest that massage can help reduce pain and increase mobility in those who suffer from arthritis.

The December 11, 2006 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, reports on a study done by researchers at the Yale Prevention Research Center and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). It was a 16-week clinical trial with 68 participants who have osteoarthritis of the knee, the joint most commonly affected by osteoarthritis. Those in the massage group received a standard one-hour Swedish massage twice a week for four weeks, followed by Swedish massage once a week for the next four weeks. After the eight weeks of massage therapy, participants had improved flexibility, less pain and improved range of motion. It’s the first clinical trial of its kind in this country. And, it validates what many massage therapists have experienced anecdotally.

“Ultimately, massage may be shown to lessen a patent’s reliance of medications and decrease health care costs,” says researcher Adam Perlman, MD, executive director of the Institute for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the UMDNJ-School of Health Related Professions. “Our hope is to show that this treatment is not only safe and effective, but cost-effective. That could change practice standards so that massage is a more common option for the many patients with osteoarthritis of the knee.”


Arthritis is an umbrella term that unifies diseases that affect the musculoskeletal system. According to the Arthritis Foundation, these conditions can be localized—in one joint or an area of the entire body—or generalized, affecting many joints and organs. Those that are localized can affect soft tissues around the joint and include ailments such as tendonitis and bursitis. Localized conditions that affect one or more joints include osteoarthritis. Generalized conditions include fibromyalgia, gout and lupus.

According the Patience White, MD, MA, chief public health officer of the Arthritis Foundation, osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, affecting some 21 million Americans.

“People at risk are those who have had prior injuries,” explains White. “Genetic susceptibility is also a factor. If you’re overweight, you’re more likely to get osteoarthritis in lower extremities.”

Lower back, neck, hands and wrists are other areas of the body affected by arthritis. White agrees that massage is helpful because it increases motion and stimulates the flow of blood in areas that are tight. But perhaps more importantly it can relax people and help break cycle of pain, which is the most common complaint of those suffering from arthritis.


A study conducted by the Touch Research Institute (TEI) at the University of Miami School of Medicine . . . those in the massage group received massage . . . once a week for four weeks and also did self-massage daily.

The massage therapy group showed lower anxiety and depressed mood scores after the first and last sessions, and by the end of the study reported less pain and greater grip strength.

Tiffany Field, PhD, is director of the Touch research Institute of the School of Medicine, Miami. The institute has done many pain studies and Field finds that a common thread in those with pain issues is lack of deep sleep.

Field says that when you are deprived of deep sleep, certain kinds of pain chemicals are released. “What massage does is help organize your sleep,” says Field. “You’re getting more deep sleep. It’s the deep sleep that’s really important because that is where the restorative process is happening.”

The institute study, like the Yale study, found that patients with arthritis experienced relief when they were massaged. But how the massage is done is important, according to Field.

“We’re finding the critical thing in massage is you need to stimulate the pressure receptors in the skin. In something like Swedish massage, you have a number of techniques that apply moderate pressure because without that you don’t get the whole cascade of events happening biochemically,” says Field.


TAKE: glucosamine and chondroitin—these form the building blocks of cartilage, the substance that lines joints. Early studies indicate that these compounds are safe and may improve arthritis symptoms. More research is underway, so check with your physician to see what’s best for your specific case.

EAT: a diet rich in vitamins and minerals, especially antioxidants like vitamin E. These are found in fruits and vegetables. Get selenium from Brewer’s yeast, what germ, garlic, whole grains and sunflower seeds. Get omega-3 fatty acids from cold water fish (salmon, mackerel and herring), flaxseed, canola oil, soybeans, soybean oil, pumpkin seeds and walnuts.

APPLY: capsaicin cream (derived from hot chili peppers) to the skin over painful joints. You may feel improvement after applying the cream for three to seven days.

Excerpted from Massage Therapy Journal/fall 2007

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