cat_massageDonna Sell Barton, our CreakyJoints House Poet, wrote last week about being touched—something many people with arthritis both crave and fear. For as much as you might long for a comforting hug, there’s a part of you that winces at the thought of anyone laying their hands on your achy body.

Yesterday was horrible,
I wanted to give up.
Today is not so bad,
But still I can’t be touched.

I’ll hold on for tomorrow,
It may be the best day yet.
Maybe you can touch me,
And I won’t snap off your head.

So when we mention massage, we understand if your first reaction is a heavy sigh followed by a meaningful eye roll. But stay with us for a moment…

We talked recently with CG Funk, VP of Industry Relations for Massage Envy Spa, a network of franchised spas. Since 2011, Massage Envy Spa has hosted Healing Hands for Arthritis, a one-day national event that donates $10 to the Arthritis Foundation for every one-hour massage or facial performed at its more than 1,000 spa locations throughout the United States. To date, Healing Hands for Arthritis has raised more than $2 million for the Arthritis Foundation.

This year the event takes place on September 17. (Consult for a location in your area.)

Funk, who is a licensed massage therapist, has worked on several studies with the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School investigating the therapeutic benefits of massage for people with arthritis.

“We know that with arthritis there is pain, lack of movement, difficulty sleeping… massage therapy has been known to help with all of these things,” she says. “It relieves pain, it reduces anxiety and stress, it improves sleep patterns, increases range of motion, and it boosts the immune system by activating the body’s natural killer cells [NK cells].”

You might know much of this already. What you might not know is that many licensed massage therapists receive training specifically geared toward massaging people with arthritis. Even if they don’t feel your pain, they understand it and know how to work with it or around it.

“There isn’t a specific type of body work for arthritis because arthritis is so varied in how it presents itself, and everyone’s level of pain and discomfort is different,” Funk explains. “Even with severe conditions, though, there’s always some technique a massage therapist can do to create relief.”

Naturally, you’ll want to consult your rheumatologist before booking a massage. Also keep in mind that the effectiveness of a massage treatment will vary from person to person and even from day to day depending on your symptoms.

Other things you need to know:

  • It probably goes without saying that, as a person with arthritis, you’d steer clear of anything labeled “deep tissue” massage. You’re looking for moderate pressure at most; gentle pressure if you’re feeling sensitive and vulnerable.
  • Massage doesn’t have to venture near your danger zones to be effective. Reflexology, for example, is a form of hand and foot massage that can relax the entire body. Even if you don’t subscribe to the philosophy of Qi energy flow that is the foundation of reflexology, Funk notes, “there are 200 thousand nerve endings in the feet alone and they all go somewhere.” Another option is a gentle scalp massage.
  • Be honest and clear with the massage therapist about your condition. That includes telling her about all the medications you’re taking.
  • You’re in control even when you’re on the massage table. If it hurts, say so. If you’re uncomfortable, say so. The massage therapist takes direction from you.
  • Ask for takeaway advice. Self-massage can provide relief for some symptoms anytime you need it. A massage therapist can show you effective ways to massage your hands, legs, and feet.

Massage won’t cure arthritis. It will, however, improve your state of mind and relieve stress. It probably will help you sleep. It very likely will relieve some of your pain and stiffness and improve your range of motion temporarily. It could become a complementary therapy that you enjoy once a week or even once a month.

It might not appeal on one of your “can’t touch this” days, but when the time is right book yourself a therapeutic massage and  see if it works for you.