Autoimmune Diseases

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What is an autoimmune disease?

An autoimmune disease is a condition in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your body.

The immune system normally guards against germs like bacteria and viruses. When it senses these foreign invaders, it sends out an army of fighter cells to attack them.

Normally, the immune system can tell the difference between foreign cells and your own cells.

In an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes part of your body — like your joints or skin — as foreign. It releases proteins called autoantibodies that attack healthy cells.

Some autoimmune diseases target only one organ. Type 1 diabetes damages the pancreas. Other diseases, like lupus, affect the whole body.

Why does the immune system attack the body?

Doctors don’t know what causes the immune system misfire. Yet some people are more likely to get an autoimmune disease than others.

Women get autoimmune diseases at a rate of about 2 to 1 compared to men — 6.4 percent of women vs. 2.7 percent of men (1). Often the disease starts during a woman’s childbearing years (ages 14 to 44).

Some autoimmune diseases are more common in certain ethnic groups. For example, lupus affects more African-American and Hispanic people than Caucasians.

Certain autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus, run in families. Not every family member will necessarily have the same disease, but they inherit a susceptibility to an autoimmune condition.

Because the incidence of autoimmune diseases is rising, researchers suspect environmental factors like infections and exposures to chemicals or solvents might also be involved (2).

A “Western” diet is another suspected trigger. Eating high-fat, high sugar, and highly processed foods are linked to inflammation, which might set off an immune response. However, this hasn’t been proven (3).

Another theory is called the hygiene hypothesis. Because of vaccines and antiseptics, children today aren’t exposed to as many germs as they were in the past. The lack of exposure could make their immune system overreact to harmless substances.

BOTTOM LINE: Researchers don’t know exactly what causes autoimmune diseases. Diet, infections, and exposure to chemicals might be involved.

14 common autoimmune diseases

There are more than 80 different autoimmune diseases (5). Here are 14 of the most common ones.

1. Type 1 diabetes

The pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar levels. In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

High blood sugar can damage blood vessels, as well as organs like the heart, kidneys, eyes, and nerves.

2. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

In rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the immune system attacks the joints. This attack causes redness, warmth, soreness, and stiffness in the joints.

Unlike osteoarthritis, which affects people as they get older, RA can start as early as your 30s (6).

3. Psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis

Skin cells normally grow and then shed when they’re no longer needed. Psoriasis causes skin cells to multiply too quickly. The extra cells build up and form red, scaly patches called scales or plaques on the skin.

About 30 percent of people with psoriasis also develop swelling, stiffness, and pain in their joints (7). This form of the disease is called psoriatic arthritis.

4. Multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) damages the myelin sheath — the protective coating that surrounds nerve cells. Damage to the myelin sheath affects the transmission of messages between your brain and body.

This damage can lead to symptoms of numbness, weakness, balance issues, and trouble walking. The disease comes in several forms, which progress at different rates. About 50 percent of people with MS need help walking within 15 years after getting the disease (8).

5. Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)

Although doctors in the 1800s first described lupus as a skin disease because of the rash it produces, it actually affects many organs, including the joints, kidneys, brain, and heart (9).

Joint pain, fatigue, and rashes are among the most common symptoms.

6. Inflammatory bowel disease

Trans fat is double trouble for your heart health


Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a term used to describe conditions that cause inflammation in the lining of the intestines. Each type of IBD affects a different part of the GI tract.

  • Crohn’s disease can inflame any part of the GI tract, from the mouth to the anus.
  • Ulcerative colitis affects only the lining of the large intestine (colon) and rectum.

7. Addison’s disease

Addison’s disease affects the adrenal glands, which produce the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. Having too little of these hormones can affect the way the body uses and stores carbohydrates and sugar.

Symptoms include weakness, fatigue, weight loss, and low blood sugar.

8. Graves’ disease


Graves’ disease attacks the thyroid gland in the neck, causing it to produce too much of its hormones. Thyroid hormones control the body’s energy usage, or metabolism.

Having too much of these hormones revs up your body’s activities, causing symptoms like nervousness, a fast heartbeat, heat intolerance, and weight loss.

One common symptom of this disease is bulging eyes, called exophthalmos. It affects up to 50 percent of people with Graves’ disease (10).

9. Sjögren’s syndrome


This condition attacks the joints, as well as glands that provide lubrication to the eyes and mouth. The hallmark symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome are joint pain, dry eyes, and dry mouth.

10. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis

In Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, thyroid hormone production slows. Symptoms include weight gain, sensitivity to cold, fatigue, hair loss, and swelling of the thyroid (goiter).

11. Myasthenia gravis


Myasthenia gravis affects nerves that help the brain control the muscles. When these nerves are impaired, signals can’t direct the muscles to move.

The most common symptom is muscle weakness that gets worse with activity and improves with rest. Often muscles that control swallowing and facial movements are involved.

12. Vasculitis

Vasculitis happens when the immune system attacks blood vessels. The inflammation that results narrows the arteries and veins, allowing less blood to flow through them.

13. Pernicious anemia


This condition affects a protein called intrinsic factor that helps the intestines absorb vitamin B-12 from food. Without this vitamin, the body can’t make enough red blood cells.

Pernicious anemia is more common in older adults. It affects 0.1 percent of people in general, but nearly 2 percent of people over age 60 (11).

14. Celiac disease

People with celiac disease can’t eat foods containing gluten — a protein found in wheat, rye, and other grain products. When gluten is in the intestine, the immune system attacks it and causes inflammation.

Celiac disease affects about 1 percent of people in the United States (12). A larger number of people have gluten sensitivity, which isn’t an autoimmune disease, but can have similar symptoms like diarrhea and abdominal pain.


Autoimmune disease symptoms

The early symptoms of many autoimmune diseases are very similar, such as:

  • fatigue
  • achy muscles
  • swelling and redness
  • low-grade fever
  • trouble concentrating
  • numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
  • hair loss
  • skin rashes

Individual diseases can also have their own unique symptoms. For example, type 1 diabetes causes extreme thirst, weight loss, and fatigue. IBD causes belly pain, bloating, and diarrhea.

With autoimmune diseases like psoriasis or RA, symptoms come and go. Periods of symptoms are called flare-ups. Periods, when the symptoms go away, are called remissions.

Symptoms of fatigue, muscle aches, swelling, and redness could be signs of an autoimmune disease. Often symptoms come and go over time.

Benefits of Massage for Autoimmune Diseases

March is Autoimmune Diseases Awareness Month—and so this is a good time to learn how massage therapy can benefit the estimated 50 million Americans suffering from some form of autoimmune disease.

That figure—50 million—represents one-sixth of the population, including children, adults and the elderly. Women represent 75 percent of those affected, while races with the highest rates of these diseases are Hispanic, African American and Native American populations, according to the National Institutes of Health.

A massage therapist needs to be mindful of the waxing-and-waning effects within a client’s body in accordance with an autoimmune condition. Generally, full-body circulatory massage is not recommended, as this circulates white blood cells more rapidly, thereby increasing their efficiency. This greater efficiency can exacerbate the client’s condition.

The following is a list of recommendations regarding massage therapy for autoimmune disease to alleviate body systems, yet not increase circulation significantly:

  1. Abdominal massage to affect organs will greatly improve organ efficiency. A form of abdominal massage called chi nei tsang, presented in many Chinese-medicine-related programs, can be a welcome addition to one’s practice in this regard.
  2. Stretching allows a client to receive myofascial benefit with minimal circulatory impact. Great stress relief comes from a longer myofascial tissue.
  3. Myofascial release is a gentle means to freeing restrictions within the myofascial network of the body. This approach may be more easily received by a client, especially during flare-ups.
  4. Thai massage and shiatsu are practices that combine stretching with focused intention upon certain muscle regions and musculotendon pathways. These modalities can easily be more or less intense depending on the client’s state on any given date.

Final considerations involve procedures with treatment planning. Be flexible with session timing, for example. Sessions may need to be shorter in duration and may need to be skipped when a client is having flare-ups.

Alsinia Hutzler, of Phoenix, Arizona, lives with MS, an autoimmune disease. Hutzler receives regular massage therapy and other types of bodywork and says they have benefitted her in many ways.

“I am a 47-year-old woman living a productive life with relapsing-remitting MS,” she said. “Life with MS is day-to-day, but with the help of massage therapy and enhanced modalities, I do very well. The enhanced modalities I am talking about are modalities like cranial sacral therapy, reiki and acupressure.”

Hutzler receives Swedish massage for relaxation, and other modalities to directly address effects of MS. She said cranial sacral therapy helps address her emotions, including depression, while reiki increases her feelings of vitality.

“Acupressure is a modality that helps my therapist work deep without actually having to perform deep tissue massage,” Hutzler said. “A full acupressure session also helps me with issues I have with my bladder due to the MS.”

Hutzler said she can attest to the effects of massage therapy, “and will swear to the effect and what it does for me. [It is] a great part of me living a productive life with MS.”

Massage therapy for with autoimmune disease can benefit clients who live with an autoimmune disease, and massage therapy clients will be well-served by therapists educated in this area of expertise.

What Does the Research Say?

The Touch Research Institute (TRI) at the University of Miami School of Medicine, has been studying the benefits of massage therapy since 1992 on a variety of health conditions. The most common benefits they have found are a reduction in pain, tension, anxiety, depression, blood pressure and cortisol levels (our stress hormone). Massage therapy also increases dopamine (the pleasure hormone). That’s a pretty impressive list. Already you can see how massage might alleviate symptoms common across many autoimmune diagnoses. But TRI also did some studies specific to certain health conditions:

  • For children with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, massage decreased anxiety, pain and cortisol levels.
  • For adults with rheumatoid arthritis, massage decreased pain, improved grip strength and increased joint range of motion.
  • For people with multiple sclerosis, massage lowered anxiety, depression, and pain, while improving balance, walking speed, body image, and function.
  • For people with fibromyalgia, massage lowered depression, anxiety, pain, stiffness, fatigue, and cortisol levels, while simultaneously improving sleep.
  • TRI also conducted a study into the effect of massage therapy on the inflammatory cytokines interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor-a (TNF-a). If that suddenly sounded like a foreign language to you, all you need to know is that both IL-6 and TNF-a are often involved in autoimmune disease. They increase inflammation and overstimulate our immune system. In fact, many immunosuppressant drugs target these pathways as a way to treat autoimmune disease. For example, Remicade suppresses TNF-a, and Actemra suppresses IL-6. It turns out massage therapy also has a suppressive effect on TNF-a and IL-6.

What Type of Massage Is Best?

So, now that we know research supports massage for people with autoimmune disease, what type of massage is best? It totally depends on the individual. There are hundreds of varieties of massage and bodywork. I can’t possibly name them all, but I’ve chosen four categories I think are particularly beneficial. Bodywork encompasses a large field beyond the typical Swedish Massage most people think of when they hear the word. I’ve worked as a bodyworker for 15 years. (That’s me in the picture above). I have both professional knowledge as a therapist and personal knowledge as a client who has experienced a wide variety of techniques myself. My goal is to help you find the ideal therapy for you.

Muscle Focus
Traditional massage therapy, like Swedish Massage, focuses primarily on relieving muscle tension. It’s also known as Relaxation Massage for this reason, and it incorporates long gliding strokes with kneading of muscles to relax tension. But there are other techniques that effectively relieve muscle tension as well, and depending on your body’s needs, one might be more effective than another. Trigger Point Therapy focuses on magic spots in our muscles, that once pressed, release tension throughout the muscle fibers, relieving pain not just locally but in referred pain zones throughout the body. Deep Tissue Therapy is a maximum-pressure massage, where the therapist uses their elbows and forearms to delve deeply into muscle tissues. Hot Stone Therapy is a spa technique that combines relaxation massage with heat therapy. Aromatherapy Massage combines the benefits of essential oils with a relaxation massage. You also might see Integrative Massage listed on the service menu. Massage therapists continue to receive training throughout their careers, and this offering allows them to blend all they have learned into one healing session.

Fascia Focus
Fascia is a web of tissue that connects everything in our body: skin, muscles, bones, vessels, and organs. If there is an imbalance in this tissue, it can cause restrictions throughout the body. Myofascial Release focuses on releasing fascial pulls and restoring balance bodywide. Just like massage, the pressure used can vary greatly. Rolfing is a deep pressure technique, designed to take place over 10 sessions, that completely realigns our posture. The John Barnes Method is a very light touch technique, designed to help the body let go of myofascial tension effortlessly; often trapped emotions are released at the same time.

Energy Focus
This is a broad area because there are so many ways of working with the energy of the human body. Reiki is often done “off the body” with the hands held over certain energy centers as the client lies on the table. Ayurvedic techniques focus on doshas and use a variety of oils, herbs and massage techniques to balance those energies. Shiatsu uses pressure points to stimulate the release of stagnation along the meridians; benefits are similar to acupuncture, but no needles are used. Sound Healing uses tuning forks, singing bowls and other instruments to release vibrations along those same meridians. And sometimes bodyworkers will simply advertise “Energy Work” and use a blend of intuition and varied techniques to balance the energy fields as needed.

Lymph Focus
The lymphatic system is an important part of our immune system, and its primary purpose is to help our body detoxify and maintain a healthy state. Most people with autoimmune disease have impaired detoxification abilities, so I have found Lymph Drainage to be especially beneficial to myself and my autoimmune clients. It’s a gentle technique where the skin is stretched in rhythmic movements, manually pumping the lymphatic fluid in the vessels located directly beneath the skin. Once these vessels are stimulated, they keep processing lymph at a higher rate for the next 24 hours. If you’re used to deep massage, you might think the touch is too light to be effective. But with this modality, the lighter the touch, the stronger it effects. It’s profoundly relaxing and reduces pain, inflammation, muscle tension, and swelling, while also boosting the body’s natural detoxification ability. The key here is to find a skilled practitioner. Many massage therapists advertise “lymphatic massage” who haven’t been trained.




Further Reading

Massage Magazine

Phoenix Helix



*Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider.
Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.
The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended as diagnosis, treatment, or prescription of any kind. The decision to use, or not to use, any information is the sole responsibility of the reader. These statements are not expressions of legal opinion relative to scope of practice, medical diagnosis or medical advice, nor do they represent an endorsement of any product, company or specific massage therapy technique, modality or approach. All trademarks, registered trademarks, brand names, registered brand names, logos, and company logos referenced in this post are the property of their owners.


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