How Massage Therapy Helps Relieve Osteoarthritis Pain

Massage has become one of the most commonly used complementary health approaches in the United States: More than 15 million American adults have received it, according to the National Institutes of Health. It's also a treatment that might benefit people with osteoarthritis

"When done by a trained massage therapist on carefully selected patients, massage therapy is a very valuable addition to traditional osteoarthritis treatments," says Valerie Voner, a licensed massage therapist and coordinator of the massage therapy program at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable, Massachusetts. 

Osteoarthritis, which affects nearly 27 million Americans, occurs when wear and tear breaks down the cartilage cushions between the joints. Pain and stiffness often result, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Chronic osteoarthritis responds well to massage, Voner says. Pain is relieved as the muscles surrounding the joints relax, releasing stiffness and allowing for better range of motion and mobility. Increased relaxation, decreased stress, and a sense of well-being are additional benefits of massage therapy, she explains. 



The Science Behind Massage Therapy 

"It's hard to find good research on massage therapy for osteoarthritis because there have been few controlled studies," Voner says. "It's hard to measure relaxation and well-being objectively." 

Still, some small studies have shown that massage therapy can be effective for various arthritis-related pains: 

Low back pain. Massage therapy may be useful for low-back pain, at least in the short term, according to a 2013 review of studies in the International Journal of General Medicine

Neck pain. A study of 37 people with arthritic neck pain, published in 2014 in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, found that massage therapy helped relieve pain and increased range of motion. 

Knee pain. A study involving 68 people that looked specifically at massage therapy for knee osteoarthritis concluded that it was both safe and effective. The researchers' follow-up study, published in 2012 in PLoS One, found that the optimal treatment for relief is 60 minutes of Swedish massage once a week. Compared with standard care, the addition of massage reduced pain and improved function. And a study in the August 2015 Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine also found that Chinese massage therapy can bring short-term relief from osteoarthritis knee pain

Although there is no solid evidence to explain how or why massage therapy works, experts believe it increases blood flow, blocks pain signals that go to the brain, and releases stress-reducing chemicals like serotonin or endorphins. 

Therapeutic Approaches for Osteoarthritis Treatment 

According to the Arthritis Foundation, massage offers a range of potential benefits to people with arthritis. Types of massage include: 

  • Trigger point. This type of massage relieves pain in specific areas of the body by applying pressure or vibration at trigger points, the Arthritis Foundation explains. Self-massage is often based on trigger points.
  • Reiki. Based on the Eastern belief that energy can be used to heal, Reiki is a form of massage in which the practitioner guides energy through your body to stimulate healing. The massage therapist's hands hover over or very lightly touch your body. Though the therapy appears to be safe, research hasn't yet shown how effective the treatment is, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.  
  • Shiatsu. This Japanese massage technique uses continuous, rhythmic motions of the fingers and palms to apply pressure to particular points of the body. It's thought that Shiatsu restores the flow of healthy energy. (This type of massage is a good option for someone who does not want to disrobe for a massage, as it’s done fully clothed.)
  • Swedish. A massage therapist uses long strokes, circular movements of applied pressure, and kneading to help relax muscles, reduce soreness, and increase oxygen flow.  
  • Reflexology. The theory behind reflexology is that applying pressure to specific spots on the hands and feet brings relief to other parts of the body. This may be beneficial for people who are too tender for direct touch on other parts of the body.           

How to Personalize Your Massage Plan 

Dina Gilmore, a licensed massage therapist in the Denver area, has dealt with bone and joint pain for most of her life. When she was younger, she says, doctors dismissed her concerns as growing pains and attributed them to the fact that she was an athlete. She was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in 2012 when X-rays after an injury showed she had degenerative bone disease. 

Gilmore considers massage to be an important part of her OA management plan. “It helps to control the symptoms,” she says. “Massage helps to decrease the pain after the work that I do all day.” Gilmore became a massage therapist because she wanted to help ease the pain for others. “I learned how good it feels to make someone feel better,” she says. 

“The type of massage that I’ve benefited greatly from has been lymphatic drainage, which is a very light touch massage that works with the lymphatic system," she says. "When you get that flowing, it communicates with your central nervous system, which can calm a lot of the pain that flares up with OA. Also Swedish massage, which is just a basic massage, and any energy work like Reiki or Polarity are fantastic.” 

Gilmore recommends trying different types of massage until you find one that provides relief. No two bodies are the same, she says, so it may take some trial and error. She also says it’s important to tell your massage therapists that you have arthritis and to let them know when something feels good and when it doesn’t. 

If you’re nervous about going for a massage, call ahead and ask the therapist to walk you through the process and answer any questions you may have. If you don’t want to lie on a table, ask for a chair massage. If you’re uncomfortable with undressing for a massage, you can request to remain fully or partially clothed. “It’s your session,” Gilmore says. “It should be customized to meet your needs.” 

Tips for Finding Affordable Massages 

Adding a weekly massage to the budget may not seem possible when you have other priorities. Try these ideas for lessening the cost burden:

  • Ask for a package deal. Many massage therapists offer discounts when they know they will be seeing a client on a regular basis, Gilmore says.
  • Request a massage gift card when a loved one asks for gift ideas you’d enjoy.
  • Check out deals on social media sites like Groupon or LivingSocial. Many massage therapists offer significant discounts to build their client base.
  • Purchase a membership at a franchise massage location. Usually you'll pay for a set number of massages a month and get a discount on additional visits.

Other points to keep in mind: 

  • Not all massage therapists are trained in pain management.
  • Massage therapy is not a substitute for medical treatment. Always tell your doctor if you are using any complementary or alternative osteoarthritis treatment.
  • Not everyone is a good candidate for every type of massage. For instance, deep tissue massage isn't appropriate for someone who has bleeding problems or is on blood thinners or when someone is having an OA flare, Voner says. 

Additional reporting by Mikel Theobald.

Article originally appeared on