people holding AIDS ribbons

October is AIDS Awareness Month, so this is a good time to become educated about what HIV and AIDS are, the prevalence of this retrovirus and how massage therapy fits into a treatment plan for the estimated 1.2 million Americans currently living with an HIV infection.

Since the U.S. Congress first began funding research into the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in 1983, both HIV and AIDS have been universally studied, debated and analyzed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that in 2014 over 1.2 million people have been diagnosed with HIV infection.

One in eight of these individuals is likely living with the condition unbeknown, as the virus has an incubation period of 10 to 15 years.

In 2014, there were an estimated 44,000 new cases of HIV diagnosis.

Today, as society moves past archaic myths and misconceptions, greater gains are made in the HIV/AIDS community in terms of research, treatments and longevity for HIV/AIDS patients.

This includes the area of massage therapy.


HIV-positive blood sample

HIV and AIDS Explained

HIV is a retrovirus that attacks the body’s immune system. This virus attacks white blood cells. As the virus takes over white blood cells, immunity weakens. A normal white blood cell count within the body ranges from 4,500 to 11,000 white blood cells per microliter of blood; however, this number begins dropping significantly upon HIV’s manifestation within the body.

AIDS is the final stage of HIV progression. At this point, one’s white blood cell count will drop below 200 white blood cells per microliter of blood.

The body’s immune system has weakened to a point in which a simple pathogen a healthy individual can easily fend off can likely kill an AIDS patient.

An important note to mention is that other conditions such as anemia, autoimmune disease and cancer can also create a significant decline in white blood cells within the blood stream.



The top three methods of transmitting this virus are anal, oral and vaginal sex. Other methods of transmission include passing the infection from pregnant woman to fetus; contaminated needles; blood transfusions; or direct contact with open, bleeding lesions present on both parties. Epithelial linings on both parties must have damage upon them for virus to spread.

Upon initial exposure, a patient acquiring HIV may suffer from ARS, “Antiretroviral Syndrome,” within two to four weeks. Patients commonly describe this as “the worst flu ever,” as the body is trying to combat the HIV infection. Common symptoms include high-grade fever, swollen glands, sore throat, rash, fatigue, headaches and muscle pain.

Common Antiretroviral Treatment (ART) options can limit the effects of HIV within the body. These treatments can extend the life span of HIV patients.

The first ART treatments were conducted in 1994. Since then, an HIV patient can have the same life expectancy as the non-HIV population. Today there are 25 FDA-approved ART treatment medications. Common side effects include nausea, vomiting, headaches, bowel issues, muscle atrophy, neuropathy, digestive issues and joint pain.

“Individuals living with HIV and AIDS have many obstacles to overcome beyond their physical challenges,” said Jennifer Sanders, a Polarity Therapy practitioner in Tempe, Arizona. “They live with a disease that carries an intense stigma nourished by fear, leading to increased levels of isolation and depression.”


touch for HIV/AIDS patients

Touch for HIV/AIDS Patients

Massage therapists have the unique opportunity to relate to these individuals through both touch and presence, Sanders added.

“It is the therapists’ presence of neutrality and empathy that allow them to serve as ambassadors of humanity,” she said. “As ambassadors, they are able to recreate the client’s experience of humanity, to one of love and compassion.

“This new state of being empowers the client and activated healing on all levels: spiritually, emotionally and physically,” said Sanders.

There are important considerations for the HIV/AIDS patient. Ensure you conduct a thorough client history, as the condition of this client can change easily and frequently. There may be a need to reschedule appointments often.

Refrain from using direct pressure upon areas presenting with open lesions and inflammation. Keeping nails short will be imperative to not transfer pathogens or scratch the epithelial skin lining.

The usage of gloves may or may not be appropriate for the HIV/AIDS patient. Many therapists insist on using gloves for fear of spreading an infectious agent during session. This practice creates a barrier both physically and mentally for the patient.

The level of trust and comfort can decrease as fear enters the room, taking away from the healing nature of the session. I do not recommend the usage of gloves in session unless there are open lesions present upon either client or therapist. This is a standard used for any client, not merely the HIV/AIDS patient.


hand holding AIDS ribbon

Benefits of Massage for HIV/AIDS Patients

Among the goals that can be achieved for the HIV/AIDS patient include facilitating the removal of excess phlegm to relieve respiratory congestion, increasing blood and lymph flow to assist in metabolic waste removal and blood cell regeneration, preventing muscular atrophy due to inactivity, reducing postsurgical scar tissue and boosting the immune system.

Consider how taxing the massage may potentially be for the client. A lighter relaxing touch may be necessary for patients suffering the ill effects of chronic stress and anxiety.

Relieving pain may become a major component of each session, yet remember that deeper modalities can tax the body’s systems, taking the patient days to recover.


Jimmy GialelisAbout 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 “Working with Pathologies—Arthritis” and many other classes. He wrote “Fibromyalgia: Massage Therapy Considerations” for MASSAGE Magazine’s July 2015 print issue, and “Things to Consider When Choosing a Continuing Education Class,” among other articles, for