Fibromyalgia—a musculoskeletal condition that affects 1-3% of the world population—distorts how the brain processes pain signals, causing widespread physical pain and tenderness. Medical researchers have shown massage therapy relieves pain in those who experience fibromyalgia and can help alleviate other symptoms of the condition.
What Is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia causes chronic pain throughout the body. People with the condition typically experience increased sensitivity to pain, feel fatigued, and have difficulty sleeping. They may have trouble focusing, experience stiffness, and endure frequent tension headaches. Some people experience depression, headaches, spastic colon, and abdominal pain or cramping.
More than 7 million Americans have fibromyalgia, which typically affects more women than men. People with severe fibromyalgia may remain bedridden for days at a time from severe fatigue and other symptoms. Due to the lack of effective medical interventions for fibromyalgia, many people turn to complementary treatments such as massage therapy for healing and relief.
Massage therapy often outperforms the other chronic pain treatments people with fibromyalgia may try. For example, a research team from the University of Miami and the Duke University School of Medicine found study participants who received massage treatments fared better than those who had transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) and a control group who received a placebo TENS treatment. To treat chronic pain, physicians commonly apply electrical TENS pads to a patient’s skin to stimulate nerve centers. The researchers observed reductions in pain, fatigue, stiffness, and insomnia in the study participants who received massage therapy treatments.
Do I Have Fibromyalgia?
If you feel widespread pain (such as a dull ache) that persists for more than three months, talk with your doctor to see if your symptoms point to fibromyalgia. Be open to other diagnoses, as people can easily confuse fibromyalgia with other types of chronic pain, such as myofascial pain syndrome.
Though medical scientists have not yet found the cause of fibromyalgia, your physician can give you a specific diagnosis for the condition. Fibromyalgia usually affects 18 specific body areas, and people who have the condition typically only experience pain in these particular “tender points,” which are widespread throughout both sides of the body.
People with fibromyalgia also have unique sleep difficulties. Though they may frequently wake up due to their pain, they can sleep for long periods of time due to intense fatigue. They often still feel fatigued upon waking as well as throughout the day.
Massage therapy has the potential to ease many fibromyalgia symptoms, including sleep difficulties. A recent examined 74 people with fibromyalgia. The study participants who received massage therapy instead of a placebo had less anxiety, slept better, experienced greater pain relief, and reported a better quality of life. Participants continued to experience the benefits of massage therapy for as long as a month after treatment and reported better sleep quality as many as six months later.
Why Is Fibromyalgia Hard to Treat?
Doctors have yet to determine an exact cause of fibromyalgia, making it a difficult condition to diagnose and treat. They can test for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as other causes of chronic pain, but there is no specific test for fibromyalgia. A blood test can identify blood cell markers in people with fibromyalgia, but the test by itself may not lead to a fibromyalgia diagnosis.
Experts believe some events (such as stressors, traumas, hormone changes, or certain chemicals) can trigger the abnormal amounts and behaviors of certain neurotransmitters associated with fibromyalgia. For example, people with fibromyalgia often experience reduced serotonin levels (and likely clinical depression).
Physicians believe fibromyalgia starts in the brain and then manifests in the body as a low-grade inflammation of fascia, other connective tissues, and muscle fibers. Fascia and related tissues surround muscles and run throughout the body. They determine how much muscles can contract and stretch and provide space for nerves and blood vessels. People with fibromyalgia often experience extreme muscular tension, which can compress muscles, restrict blood flow, and block nervous system pathways.
Can Massage Therapy Treat Fibromyalgia?
Massage therapy holds many benefits for people with fibromyalgia. In a 2015 review of 10 research studies on massage therapy and fibromyalgia, a research team found massage helped people reduce pain, anxiety, and depression related to the condition. People who received massages experienced high levels of pain relief and moderate amounts of emotional healing, which endured well beyond the end of the treatment period.
The researchers examined various types of massage therapy for fibromyalgia and found myofascial release improved stiffness, fatigue, and quality of life. For these symptoms, manual lymphatic drainage techniques and shiatsu massage produced more results than connective tissue massage and Swedish massage.
Another researcher noted the short- and long-term benefits of massage therapy for people with fibromyalgia, recommending one to two gentle, painless massage treatments per week with gradual increases in intensity (depending on the severity of the person’s condition).
Scientists continue to examine the mechanisms of massage therapy and the root causes of fibromyalgia. Research shows massage therapy helps people with chronic pain, as well as those recovering from injuries and surgery. People who receive regular massages sleep better, have less anxiety and depression, and experience improved range of motion. The benefits of massage therapy can lead to pain relief and better quality of life for many.
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