Massage May Provide Healing Relief for People with Multiple Sclerosis
Researchers at Shepherd Center are gauging whether massage helps improve debilitating MS symptoms and quality of life.
Human touch can have a powerful effect on health, and research has found it may even promote healing. In fact, therapeutic massage is known to help relax muscles, enhance range of motion, improve blood flow and reduce stress.
Researchers at Shepherd Center are investigating whether routine massage can help improve pain, spasticity and overall quality of life among people with multiple sclerosis (MS). This small study – one of the first to look at how massage might influence these measures in MS – will enroll 25 participants. Individuals will receive standardized massages – for the same amount of time, number of strokes, parts of the body worked on – for one hour a week for six weeks.
“MS is a progressive disease, and the symptoms don’t go away,” says Deborah Backus, Ph.D., director of MS research at Shepherd Center and the study’s principal investigator. “Many of the symptoms can actually exacerbate peoples’ disability and dramatically affect their quality of life.”
MS is a disease of the central nervous system in which the immune system starts attacking the protective sheath that covers the nerves. This ultimately disrupts communication between the brain and body, and can be debilitating. It is estimated that 30 to 90 percent of people with MS report pain, and most (80 percent) have spasticity that is disruptive to everyday function, personal care and mobility.
In this study, researchers are collecting and analyzing data from clinical tools and self-reported questionnaires to gauge changes in pain and spasticity levels, as well as quality-of-life measures both before and after massage.
Shavonne Thurman, 39, of Atlanta, Ga., was among the first to sign up and participate in the study. Having completed her participation in the study, she now misses her weekly sessions during which massage therapists applied long strokes and light pressure – characteristic of Swedish-based massage techniques.
“I’ve always had extreme tightness in my calves – so much so that it’s hard to think about anything else,” she says. “But during the massage, I was able to let that go and not think about my MS. It actually relaxed my legs so much, I had to sit for a minute before getting up because they were like jelly.”
Shavonne was diagnosed with MS in 1999, and it has affected her life incredibly, she says. She walks with forearm crutches, but feels fortunate that she is still very active, can drive a car and is mentally sharp. Still, she is always hopeful for new therapies that will ease her pain and that of others with MS.
While massage cannot cure MS, researchers say it holds promise to manage symptoms.
“People are always looking for new ways to manage MS,” says Christina Manella, PT, LMT, former therapy manager in Shepherd Center’s MS Institute.
The beauty of massage is that it offers physical benefits, as well as mental and emotional upsides, too, Manella says.
“MS can be very stressful for patients because they don’t always know what’s coming next,” she adds. “This type of study helps us look at the whole person because a patient might be on the right medication and be physically fine based on [functional brain] MRIs, but if they are stressed out, it’s going to affect their health.”
Through this study, researchers will be able to quantify any benefits of massage, show that it does no harm in this population, and advance ongoing efforts to improve the health and wellness of people with MS.
To date, there has been relatively little research done to evaluate the use of massage or other bodywork therapies in MS. Yet, surveys find as many as one-third of individuals with MS use massage therapy as an adjunct to their medical treatment, so more data is needed.
“The idea for the study came out of a need perceived in the MS Institute at Shepherd Center and is another example of how we can ask meaningful research questions that will directly impact patient care,” Dr. Backus explains.
Not surprisingly, there’s been no shortage of interest, she adds.
“We didn’t need to promote this study too heavily,” Dr. Backus says. “The good news is that if massage shows great benefits, it’s something that may be more accessible to people with MS and, assuming it is done safely, can be continued over the course of their life.”
To date, many health insurance plans will not cover massage for MS or other chronic diseases, but studies like this one may pave the way for changes in the future.
- Be diagnosed with MS by a physician
- Be at least 18 years of age
- Not have any fractures, other neurological disease or any health condition that would make massage unsafe
- Be able to lay comfortably on their stomach or back
- Be less than 350 pounds
In the media
Written By Amanda Crowe, MA, MPH
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.