Massage for Chronic Pain

Massage for Chronic Pain
Massage for Chronic Pain

Why Massage Therapy for My Pain?

Massage therapy is turning out to be more broadly accepted as a dependable treatment for many types of pain within the medical community. It is also accepted as an adjunct to other medical treatments. In general, massage is rarely given as the primary or sole treatment for pain management. It is often employed as one factor of therapy and to aid in preparing the patient to partake in exercise or other treatment methods. Regardless, massage can be an essential and operative component of your pain management routine.

Massage has been revealed to be especially effective in mitigating back pain. Due to the fact that back pain is a component of a wide array of pain conditions, massage is often considered to be beneficial to the healing process. Moreover, different types of massage will be useful for different segments of the body. Specifically, acupressure and shiatsu are intended to relieve different types of pain in different regions. Neuromuscular treatment is typically beneficial in relieving “referred” pain, which is pain that is activated by one part of the body but is felt in an entirely different area.

Benefits of Massage Therapy

In general, benefits of massage therapy include increased blood flow and enhanced circulation; muscle relaxation which subsequently improves range of motion; increased endorphin levels; improved sleep and lessened bouts of insomnia. Enjoy this quick summary of various types of massage that may be appropriate for you.

Swedish Massage

This is the most popular type of massage, therefore, most research regarding the benefits of massage have utilized Swedish massage techniques. It is important to note that Swedish massage is very gentle and does not target precise pain points or apply deep pressure. It is widely recognized as being highly relaxing which is excellent for sufferers of acute or chronic pain. Despite how mild Swedish massage is, it enhances blood flow and thus can aid in the removal of excess lactic acid from muscles, thereby helping alleviate muscle pain.

Neuromuscular Massage

This type of massage therapy is also known as “trigger point” massage due to the fact that it targets regions of tension and muscular spasm in the back. The massage therapist directs pressure to a particular region of interest. Neuromuscular massage can sometimes cause soreness at the outset since the focus of its pressure is directly on tender regions. Be sure to communicate with your therapist to identify the appropriate pressure. Similar to Swedish massage, neuromuscular massage also works to flush lactic acid out of the muscles to alleviate pain.


This type of massage stimulates vital spots on the body to impede pain sensations and stimulate the natural pain relievers of the body. In general, the best approach for pain relief is to apply sustained pressure on vital points for one to three minutes. This pressure is applied by using hands, fingers, or other devices.


This form of massage is very similar to acupressure, as the word shiatsu literally means “finger pressure”. The primary difference is that practitioners of shiatsu do not use their full hand to apply pressure – only the fingers are used.

Therapeutic massage may relieve pain by way of several mechanisms, including relaxing painful muscles, tendons, and joints; relieving stress and anxiety; and possibly helping to “close the pain gate” by stimulating competing nerve fibers and impeding pain messages to and from the brain.

Therapeutic massage is an active area of research. In particular, it has been studied for its effect on pain in the back, hands, neck, and knees, among other areas. A study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice showed a reduction in hand pain and an improvement in grip strength among people who had four weekly hand massage sessions and did self-massage at home. They also slept better and had less anxiety and depression than people in the control group who didn’t receive the hand massage.

A study published in Annals of Family Medicine in 2014 found that 60-minute therapeutic massage sessions two or three times a week for four weeks relieved chronic neck pain better than no massage or fewer or shorter massage sessions.

Massage therapy can involve varying degrees of pressure. Some people find certain forms of massage, such as deep tissue massage, to be painful. Massage doesn’t have to be painful to be therapeutic, so be sure to tell your therapist the type of touch you prefer (light touch, firm pressure, hard pressure). Lighter may be more relaxing and therefore more beneficial, depending on your situation. People with certain pain conditions such as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome may only be able to tolerate light pressure.

There are no data to suggest that massage is harmful, but there are some specific situations where it is not recommended: massaging an inflamed area of skin, for example, can make it worse by causing irritation. One should not have a massage in an area of infection, as it might spread the infection. The American Massage Therapy Association lists heart problems, infectious disease, phlebitis, and some skin conditions as reasons to avoid massage.

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Massage + Chronic Pain

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Imagine living with chronic pain. Every day you wake up—after a night where you might not have gotten very much sleep—knowing that your day will involve pain, most often in several areas of your body. Then, add in the depression and anxiety that often accompanies having to deal with chronic pain and what you have is this: a peek at what it’s like for someone who suffers from fibromyalgia or chronic myofascial pain syndrome (LMTS).

Though the causes of fibromyalgia and LMTS are unclear, what we are starting to better understand is how massage therapy can help people with these conditions better manage their pain. Read on to learn more.

A Quick Look at the Conditions

Although both fibromyalgia and LMTS present with pain, these are different conditions, and so having an idea of what each diagnosis entails is important.

Some recognizable symptoms of fibromyalgia can include irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, migraines, numbness in the upper and lower body, and joint stiffness that is distributed around several areas of the body. This condition is usually diagnosed when a minimum of 11 out of 18 tender points are active with pain to the touch. The areas where the pain is most common amongst patients include the neck and lower back. Additional symptoms include recurrent feelings of exhaustion, musculoskeletal pain and a tingling or prickling feeling known as paresthesia, which is similar to that of pins and needles and mainly caused by pressure or damage to the peripheral nerves. Generally speaking, too, fibromyalgia sufferers often have acute, superficial tender points.

According to the National Fibromyalgia Research Association, more than 6 million Americans, 90 percent of whom are women, suffer from fibromyalgia, with symptoms typically showing up between the ages of 20 and 55. Additionally, somewhere between 25 percent and 65 percent of the time, fibromyalgia presents along with other pain syndromes—most commonly rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and spinal arthritis.

With chronic myofascial pain syndrome, symptoms can begin to show up after some type of trauma or injury. This condition often occurs when a muscle has been contracted repetitively, like in jobs that require repetitive motion or when stress-related muscle tension is present.

Some notable symptoms of LMTS include lacrimation, deep aching that affects one group of muscles or several, complications with the vasomotor, cuticle flushing, an increase or decrease in body heat, and excessive sweating. Additionally, people with LMTS often have prolonged, deep aching trigger points with desensitized nerve endings, LMTS, unlike fibromyalgia, tends to affect both genders equally, typically appearing in adults who are between the ages of 30 and 60. A diagnosis is usually made when a person has experienced quadrant pain for at least six months or more.

What you Need to Know



Accurate information. Dr. Kimberly Miller, DC, founder of the Georgia Massage Institute in Winder, has some insight into both of these conditions, as she suffers from both fibromyalgia and LMTS. According to Miller, differentiating between these two diseases can be difficult, which can lead to some people being misdiagnosed and a whole host of other issues.

So, massage therapists are going to need to make sure these clients are in regular contact with their health care professional so they know they are getting the most accurate information regarding their diagnosis and disease during intake. Without this information, creating a treatment plan that is beneficial to the client will be difficult. For example, says Miller, clients with fibromyalgia are going to require a different pressure than someone with LMTS. “A misdiagnosis leads to an incorrect medication and treatment plan,” Miller explains. “When receiving manual therapy, for example, a patient with LMTS requires the deepest pressure while the true fibromyalgia patient requires only the lightest of touch.”

Understanding the difference and diagnosis. Most, if not all, the clients you see with either of these conditions will have a diagnosis before they make an appointment. With this in mind, massage therapists should have some idea of what these diagnoses involve, as well as what the condition means for the individual client. For example, what are the client’s main symptoms? Where is the pain most intense? What treatments are they currently using to deal with the diagnosis? Before you and the client can decide how massage therapy will best benefit them, you’re going to have to have a good idea of both the condition and how the condition affects their lives.

Doing a thorough intake. Intake is always important, no matter who you are working with. But especially with clients who have a diagnosed medical condition, you’re going to have to be thorough. “During the initial appointment, I do a detailed written health history,” explains Miller. “Then, I sit and go over the written health history with them.” At each subsequent appointment, Miller follows up with questions concerning pain, asking the client where they are on a scale of 0 to 10 at that moment. She also asks about any recent flare-ups since the last visit, and has a conversation about how the massage therapy sessions are working. “I want to know how they’re feeling after the session, as well as how they’re feeling a few days after the session,” Miller says. “I also ask if they’re getting relief so I can make sure we’re on the right track.”

A typical session. For a client with LMTS, a session is typically going to last approximately 30 minutes to an hour and should involve deeper pressure. According to Miller, massage therapists should focus on areas where the pain is most severe. “There are common areas of pain and dysfunction for LMTS patients, which is usually around the joints,” she says.

Applying deep pressure for these clients can take a toll on the massage therapist, so Miller encourages practitioners to find a way to work that takes some of the stress off their own bodies. For example, you might find working with your elbows helps you get the depth you need without straining your own body.

When working with clients who have fibromyalgia, massage therapists are going to need to use a lighter touch. Miller recommends touch that is surface oriented and doesn’t apply any pressure to the client’s skin. “Work on the top of the skin to stimulate blood flow,” she encourages. “Then work superficially all over the body.”

And don’t be afraid to change things up if what you’re doing isn’t working. Miller gives anyone a treatment plan between four to six massage sessions before she reevaluates and then, if the client isn’t seeing any relief, they begin to look at making some changes. “Maybe the pressure or the length of massage is a little off,” says Miller. “Or perhaps we need to vary the technique we’re using.”

Miller says that most often it’s the clients with fibromyalgia that need to more frequently reassess and change direction, as the clients with LMTS typically benefit from sessions that incorporate deep tissue massage. “Clients with LMTS are pretty much going to be deep tissue every single time,” she explains. “There are usually more variables involved with the clients who have fibromyalgia.”

Make adjustments. If you work with other consumer demographics that are dealing with a particular health condition, knowing that you’re going to have to make some adjustments to each session, for each client, isn’t going to come as a surprise. As Miller notes, clients with LMTS may like and need deep pressure, whereas clients with fibromyalgia might only be able to withstand the lightest of touch. Additionally, there may be some appointments where clients come for pain relief and others where stress relief is what is going to be more beneficial.

Think, too, of your physical space. These clients may very well have some sensitivities that are going to need to be accounted for prior to each appointment. For example, you might find that strong scents are disagreeable to some of these clients, or that they need the lights to be dimmed. Music, too, could be a trigger, so be sure to talk to your client about music, oil and lighting preferences before each massage session.

With these clients, checking in during the session is going to be imperative. Massage therapists are going to need to verify that pressure is appropriate and the client is comfortable. You may find some people only want you to work where they are experiencing the most pain. Or, perhaps they want you to deal with their trigger points. Regardless, let them guide the session and set the pace, and understand if they need to take a break.

Medication and massage. As with many people who deal with chronic health conditions, most of these clients are probably going to be on at least one—and potentially multiple—medications. So, massage therapists are going to need to be aware of the medications being used and fully understand how these medications might impact a massage therapy session.

When working with clients who have LMTS, fibromyalgia or other chronic pain conditions, the goal is helping them better manage the pain that is, for many, a part of their everyday lives. Learning how massage therapy can benefit people suffering from a variety of health conditions provides massage therapists with a real opportunity to reach out to new clients with the message of how massage can help.











Pro Massage by Nicola, LMT Specializing in Sports Injuries, Santa Barbara, Goleta, Ca.
Pro Massage by Nicola, LMT Specializing in Sports Injuries, Santa Barbara, Goleta, Ca.


*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 the 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.r.