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Massage for Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Beginner's Guide

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I’ve worked as a massage therapist for 30 years, and in that time I’ve massaged many clients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

For clients with RA, there’s evidence that receiving massage therapy once a week for four weeks, and then scaling back to once a month, is enough to reap the benefits of massage. These benefits include pain relief and maintenance of joint mobility. In the early stages of RA, massage may even help slow down the progression of the disease.

One of the first questions people with any condition often ask is: Can you fix me?

In the case of RA, the short answer is no. Massage therapy can’t completely heal RA. But it can relieve pain and help you stay active longer.

What You Should Expect from the Massage

I start my sessions by asking clients which areas they want me to work on. Most massage sessions will take about 50 minutes to an hour on the table. I suggest eating an hour or two before your session and visiting the restroom before getting started.

An hour-long massage can range in cost from $50 to $150, with $80 being fairly typical. Depending on your insurance company and your state of residence, there’s a chance the expense could be covered for you (especially if your doctor writes a prescription for you to receive massage therapy).

Most massage therapists will split an hour-long session in half, with the first half involving therapeutic massage and the second half involving relaxation massage.

During the therapeutic massage, the focus will be on the joints that are causing you problems. Most clients with RA need a fair amount of therapeutic massage, but the stage of your disease determines how thoroughly I can alleviate your pain. In the early stages, I can do a lot more to retain mobility in your joints, but if your joints are permanently deformed or calcified, the massage would be more limited.

RA affects every joint in the body, but people tend to notice it first in the smaller joints of the hands and the feet. Depending on your condition, the therapeutic massage will likely focus on your hands, forearms, elbows and shoulders, along with your feet, calves, knees and hips.

The relaxation portion of your massage isn’t geared toward your specific issues. It will involve slower strokes, moderate pressure and is typically full-body. But, as the client, you can decide whether you’d rather focus attention on the upper body or the lower body; it’s up to you.

During the massage, you can expect to feel comfortable and relaxed. Certain areas may feel tender under pressure, but you shouldn’t be in any pain. If anything feels painful, let your therapist know and he will reduce the pressure he is applying. Your massage therapist may also use aromatherapy, oils and other tools when appropriate, or may rely entirely on his hands.

After the massage, it’s pretty common for people to feel a bit light headed, especially if you’re taking a lot of medication. The feeling usually dissipates after 10 minutes. You’ll also want to make a conscious effort to drink plenty of water, as the massage will leave you dehydrated.

You should expect to feel looser and more relaxed for several hours following your appointment.

What You Should Expect from Your Massage Therapist

A good massage therapist will be able to tell a lot about where you’re having pain or stiffness just from your body language before you even get on the massage table. But that doesn’t mean communication is unnecessary. Throughout the massage, it’s very important your therapist ask repeatedly if the pressure he’s applying is okay, and whether certain massage strokes feel good or painful.

I tend to talk to my clients quite a bit during the massage itself, because I find my clients appreciate knowing why I’m doing what I’m doing. For example, I may explain why I’m focusing a lot of energy on a client’s upper forearm when it’s the client’s hand that’s really stiff or in pain. In this case, it’s because the muscles that control the hand actually run all the way up to the elbow, so massaging the upper forearm offers a lot of relief for your hand.

Another important topic your massage therapist should cover is self-massage. Clients with RA really benefit from practicing self-massage between scheduled massage sessions. I spend a lot of time during and after the session instructing clients on how to massage their joints at home. Practicing self-massage is an efficient and cost-effective way of receiving massage therapy every day instead of only once a week.

Ultimately, your massage therapist’s goal should be to help soothe pain, increase mobility and make you as comfortable as possible. If you’re uncomfortable disrobing completely, then a good therapist will work with you on that—even if it means massaging you through a sheet or fully-clothed.

You should take time to consider whether you’d be more comfortable with a male or female therapist. The majority of massage therapists are female, but you’ll likely be able to find a male massage therapist in your area.

I would urge you to find someone who matches these descriptions, but who also meets your specific needs. It may take talking to a couple different therapists—or even trying a few—before you find a perfect fit.

Jeff Trotti is a Georgia-licensed massage therapist and owner of Comprehensive Bodyworks in Decatur, Georgia. You can connect with him at Jefftrotti@jefftrotti.com .

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2014 Dec 22
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