March is Autoimmune Diseases Awareness Month—and so this is a good time to learn how massage therapy can benefit the estimated 50 million Americans suffering from some form of autoimmune disease.
That figure—50 million—represents one-sixth of the population, including children, adults and the elderly. Women represent 75 percent of those affected, while races with the highest rates of these diseases are Hispanic, African American and Native American populations, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Types of Autoimmune Disease
There are actually too many autoimmune diseases to list here. Some of the autoimmune diseases a massage client might present with, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, include ankylosing spondylitis, celiac disease, fibromyalgia, Hashimoto’s encephalitis, multiple sclerosis (MS), peripheral neuropathy, rheumatoid arthritis, restless leg syndrome, scleroderma and Type-1 diabetes.
Clinically speaking, autoimmune disease features a breakdown of self-tolerance, the body’s ability to recognize its cells from foreign antigens and pathogens. The body attacks its own cells because of an inability of white blood cells to read protein markers upon cell membranes. Depending on various sources, there are between 80 and 120 such conditions.
Causes of Autoimmune Disease
The cause of autoimmune disease is largely unknown; however, many theories arise with the onset and development of these conditions. Factors linked to autoimmune diseases include the following:
- Viruses such as Epstein-Barr, Coxsackievirus B and Herpes Simplex
- Bacteria such as Streptococcus pyogenes, Borrelia burgdorfeii, Campylobacta er jejuni and Chlamydia pneumoniae
- Protozoa, such as Trypansoma cruzi
- Environmental contaminants such as silica, asbestos, the solvent trichloroethylene, and a diet high in sodium
Classifications of Autoimmune Disease
Of the many varieties of autoimmune diseases, a common classification method has been adopted by the medical and scientific communities:
- Organ-specific: The body’s immune system attacks a single organ or tissue. Two examples include diabetes mellitus, which attacks the pancreas; and vitiligo, which attacks the skin.
- System-specific: The body’s immune system attacks multiple organs of a single system or multiple systems. Two examples include MS, which attacks nerve cells throughout the body; and systematic lupus, which attacks various body systems at different intervals.
General signs and symptoms vary greatly upon the disease itself and may include fever, fatigue, malaise and tissue lesions. Other common manifestations include:
- Joint and muscle pain with weakness
- Unexplained weight loss
- Recurrent skin sensitivities
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling fatigued and cold often
- White patches upon skin or mouth
- Abdominal pain with blood or mucus in elimination
- Dry eyes, skin or mouth
- Paresthesia of hands or feet
- Multiple miscarriages and blood clots in menses
Autoimmune disease manifests uniquely within affected person. Among the means to alleviate signs and symptoms associated with such conditions, aside from normal diet and exercise recommendations, are: measures to decrease stress, such as yoga and tai chi; limiting exposure to sunlight; and being conscious of the effects of pain, anti-inflammatory and immune suppressive medications, and hormone replacement therapies.
Of course, you must ensure that a properly trained practitioner speaks to these health means, and be aware of scope of practice when providing advice of this nature to a client. For example, when speaking about maintaining a healthy diet, an encouraged statement by therapist to client will be, “Be sure to consult with a nutritionist in conjunction with your primary physician to ensure your dietary needs are met.”
Massage and Autoimmune Disease
A massage therapist needs to be mindful of the waxing-and-waning effects within a client’s body in accordance with any autoimmune condition. Generally, full-body circulatory massage is not recommended, as this circulates white blood cells more rapidly, thereby increasing their efficiency. This greater efficiency can exacerbate the client’s condition.
The following is a list of recommendations regarding massage therapy for autoimmune disease to alleviate body systems, yet not increase circulation significantly:
- Abdominal massage to affect organs will greatly improve organ efficiency. A form of abdominal massage called chi nei tsang, presented in many Chinese-medicine-related programs, can be a welcome addition to one’s practice in this regard.
- Stretching allows a client to receive myofascial benefit with minimal circulatory impact. Great stress relief comes from longer myofascial tissue.
- Myofascial release is a gentle means to freeing restrictions within the myofascial network of the body. This approach may be more easily received by a client, especially during flare-ups.
- Thai massage and shiatsu are practices that combine stretching with focused intention upon certain muscle regions and musculotendon pathways. These modalities can easily be more or less intense depending on the client’s state on any given date.
Final considerations involve procedures with treatment planning. Be flexible with session timing, for example. Sessions may need to be shorter in duration and may need to be skipped when a client is having flare-ups.
Benefits of Massage for Autoimmune Disease
Alsinia Hutzler, of Phoenix, Arizona, lives with MS, an autoimmune disease. Hutzler receives regular massage therapy and other types of bodywork, and says they have benefitted her in many ways.
“I am a 47-year-old woman living a productive life with relapsing remitting MS,” she said. “Life with MS is day-to-day, but with the help of massage therapy and enhanced modalities, I do very well. The enhanced modalities I am talking about are modalities like cranial sacral therapy, reiki and acupressure.”
Hutzler receives Swedish massage for relaxation, and other modalities to directly address effects of MS. She said cranial sacral therapy helps address her emotions, including depression, while reiki increases her feelings of vitality.
“Acupressure is a modality that helps my therapist work deep without actually having to perform deep tissue massage,” Hutzler said. “A full acupressure session also helps me with issues I have with my bladder due to the MS.”
Hutzler said she can attest to the effects of massage therapy, “and will swear by the effect and what it does for me. [It is] a great part of me living a productive life with MS.”
Massage therapy for with autoimmune disease can benefit clients who live with an autoimmune disease, and massage therapy clients will be well-served by therapists educated in this area of expertise.
About the Author
Jimmy Gialelis, L.M.T., B.C.T.M.B., is owner of Advanced Massage Arts & Education in Tempe, Arizona. He is a National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork-approved provider of continuing education, and teaches many CE classes, including “Working with Pathologies—Autoimmune Disease.” His articles for this publication include “Fibromyalgia: Massage Therapy Considerations” (July 2015) and “Massage Improves Quality of Life for the Cerebral Palsy Patient” (Oct. 5, 2016). His mission with massage therapy is to integrate allopathic and homeopathic ideals with both clientele and classes.