For fibromyalgia sufferers, dealing with chronic muscle aches and pains is a constant battle. Although fibromyalgia is not life-threatening, it is a condition that can be extremely distressing for sufferers. Fortunately, massage therapy is a renowned treatment modality for the relief of fibromyalgia symptoms. Pain is relieved at the time of treatment, as well as providing longer term benefits such as improved relaxation and ability to sleep.
Fibromyalgia is not a disease per se but is referred to as a condition, syndrome or disorder associated with widespread chronic pain (that can be aching, burning, stabbing or throbbing); fatigue; and cognitive disturbances such as memory problems, mood swings and emotional distress. The condition fortunately does not cause any permanent muscle or joint damage. However the pain felt is real, and the cognitive symptoms are distressing. Approximately 2 to 5% of the population suffer from fibromyalgia. Both men and women are affected by the syndrome, but it occurs much more in women and tends to develop in middle adulthood.
Benefits of massage therapy for fibromyalgia
Increased circulation – For fibromyalgia sufferers, massage is often very gentle, as the syndrome’s characteristic sensitivity to touch rules out deep tissue work. Instead, techniques are used to encourage circulation in the muscles that helped deliver vital nutrients to the cells as well as clear the tissues of any waste products. Delivering oxygen to the muscle tissues is a key component for treating fibromyalgia. The oxygen assists greatly with reducing stiffness and pain. In fact, many massage therapists report that fibromyalgia sufferers’ muscles may feel cold to the touch, due to the lack of circulation.
Relaxation and pain relief – Massage is also wonderful for fibromyalgia sufferers as it deeply relaxes the body, slowing heart rate, increases the range of movement in joints and encourages endorphin release (the natural painkillers in the body). For more information on how massage assists with pain relief see our blog, Massage and pain relief: the science behind the soothing.
Rest and sleep – Regular massage treatments help bring the body back in balance, further relaxing the body and encouraging a good night’s sleep. Many fibromyalgia sufferers claim that they wake up tired, even after plenty of sleep. This is because people with fibromyalgia suffer from a lack of deep sleep, which is vital for repairing and restoring the body. By rebalancing and relaxing the body, pain responses are lessened – allowing the individual to get a deeper and more restful sleep.
Releasing chronic muscle tension & headaches
Many sufferers of fibromyalgia claim that they simply cannot relax the muscles; the muscles feel like they are in a permanently contracted state. Massage therapy helps break that cycle by relaxing and lengthening the muscles, allowing the body to remember how the state of relaxation feels. Chronic pain and tension in the upper back, shoulders and neck are a common problem for fibromyalgia sufferers, with this tension leading to chronic tension headaches. Many have claimed that after regular massage treatments, headaches become less frequent, with fewer medications required. Lower back pain is another problem for many sufferers, and pain levels in the back can also decrease after regular massage treatments.
Anxiety & depression
Regular, soothing massage therapy treatments reportedly give positive results for fibromyalgia sufferers who have anxiety and depression, mainly due to the relaxing effects and release of endorphins.
Types of massage for fibromyalgia
Most therapists start fibromyalgia patients on very light, Swedish-style massage techniques. Swedish massage involves only light touching and stroking of the muscles. Once the patient is comfortable with this technique, the massage therapist may wish to alter his or her style, by adding reflexology, trigger point massage, myofascial release, positional release techniques or other modalities. Whichever way, communication is crucial when assessing fibromyalgia sufferers as pain and sensitivity are key issues. The positive news is that once patients are accustomed to the treatment, the tense and painful muscles will relax, allowing the recipient to enjoy deeper and more regular massage therapy treatment.
A quick summary of treatment options for fibromyalgia
Although this article focuses on the benefits of massage for fibromyalgia, it’s imperative for both massage therapists and sufferers of this syndrome to educate themselves about the condition. Currently, there is no cure for fibromyalgia. Instead, it is recommended that someone who may be suffering from fibromyalgia is diagnosed correctly and then given a management program tailored to her or his needs.
Management of fibromyalgia consists of a combination of the following:
- education: sufferers need to understand as much as possible about the condition in order to help manage their condition;
- exercise: mild exercise to encourage circulation, gentle aerobic activity or water-based exercises help with general conditioning, stamina, sleep and pain reduction;
- massage: for pain management, stress reduction and improved quality of sleep;
- nutrition: for overall health, increased energy levels and maintaining a healthy body weight;
- stress management and relaxation: stress can aggravate pain levels, drastically worsening the condition;
- balancing rest and activity: avoiding fatigue by breaking up activities is important to prevent ‘flareups’;
- medication: used either sporadically or consistently for pain reduction or to help with sleep.
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