How Massage Therapy Has Changed My Life with MS
Medically reviewed by Heidi Moawad, M.D. — Written by Dan Digmann on February 12, 2021
I looked up at the clock and realized there only were 20 minutes until it was time to leave for an appointment with my massage therapist, Anna.
Thinking about everything on my plate — all the drafts I needed to craft for a work campaign, essays to write for two websites, a weekly phone call to chat with my parents, and everything related to living with multiple sclerosis (MS) and being the primary caregiver for a spouse who also has MS — I sighed to my loving wife, Jennifer.
“Not that I don’t enjoy getting a massage,” I said, “but I can’t help but think how much easier it would be to get all this done if I didn’t have to take the time for an appointment with Anna.”
Jennifer looked at me and, in a matter-of-fact type of tone, reminded me of why it was so important for me to go.
“Just think how much easier it will be to get it all done because you made the time for your appointment,” she said.
Why, yes, Jennifer, you are absolutely right. This is exactly what I need for my health and, consequently, hers, too.
The benefits of massage therapy for those with MS — and for caregivers
I regularly deal with MS-induced numbness in my arms, hands, and feet. I also have tightened back and shoulder muscles from lifting Jennifer for each of her transfers, as well as from sitting at a desk for my full-time job as a creative writer.
Jennifer first sold me on the benefits of massage therapy. Visits with Anna have demonstrated that it’s is a necessity, not a luxury, when it comes to both living with MS and being an MS caregiver.
There are so many benefits to getting a massage beyond it feeling incredibly relaxing and rejuvenating for my muscles and joints. For real. It’s truly a key component of self-care. I had a conversation with Anna about this, and she offered some expert insight.
“Massage therapy helps manage anxiety and stress and lowers inflammation,” said Anna.
One small 2016 studyTrusted Source identified massage therapy as a safe and beneficial way to help improve MS symptoms like fatigue and pain, which can then help boost quality of life.
Another small 2014 studyTrusted Source found massage therapy to be a safe, noninvasive supplemental treatment that can help people with MS manage the stress of their condition and its symptoms.
“If some people still think it’s a luxury, I’m OK with that,” said Anna. “But I know people come to me for relief. They walk away with less pain and more flexibility, and in better spirits. I’ve seen these results, and that’s why I continue to work as a massage therapist.”
Overcoming the guilt of taking time for massage — and reaping the benefits
I’m not going to lie, it took me some time to not feel like I was being selfish with my time and unnecessarily pampering myself with a massage. I even abbreviated it as “MSG” in case co-workers saw the appointment on my appointment calendar. But once I saw the real health benefits, I now proudly mark it down as a “Massage.”
And why shouldn’t I?
I often have told Anna that if she spent the entire hour focused on my forearms and hands, I wouldn’t complain. It’s as though the massage calms my numbness, reminds my hands they’re still there, and restores them to take on more typing tasks.
In addition to MS, I also deal with plantar fasciitis in my feet. This causes me to walk more slowly and gingerly than normal because my arches feel as though they’re bruised. That is until Anna works on them for a few minutes. Then I’m walking more comfortably for the next several weeks.
This is why I think it’s so incredibly beneficial to find a massage therapist you like and continue to solely see that particular therapist. This helps you feel more comfortable with each other. It also creates an ongoing relationship where the massage therapist can sense when things feel as they should or if they’re a little off.
For example, at my last appointment, Anna noticed my left shoulder was tighter than normal, but the spasticity in my hands seemed more relaxed.
Finding the right type of massage for MS
The company where Anna works states on its website that she specializes in everything from deep tissue to Swedish massage as well as trigger point therapy, reflexology, and aromatherapy. I asked her which one she would recommend for someone with MS.
“I recommend starting out with a Swedish-style massage, which involves long, soothing, rhythmic strokes to help elongate and relax the muscles, relieving tension. Starting out with lighter pressure might also be a good idea, as deep tissue may affect each client with MS differently,” she said. “Overall, I try to promote relaxation for my client where they can leave feeling healthier, with less tension and pain in their muscles and body.”
This is why every time Jennifer comments on how tight her shoulders feel, I subtly encourage her by saying, “Yeah, her name is Anna. She’ll take care of you if you just call and make an appointment.”
Anna quickly confirmed that Jennifer — and other people who use wheelchairs — can fully experience the benefits of massage therapy.
“I have worked on patients in wheelchairs, and you can get to those trouble areas no problem,” said Anna. “They still benefit from the massage while staying comfortable in their chair in the privacy of the massage room.”
If you use a wheelchair and are concerned about falls and how to safely get a massage, know that it can be done. Search for a massage therapist who is prepared to take safety precautions.
As I look at Jennifer, I remind her in a matter-of-fact tone why it is so important for her to see a massage therapist. I then look down at my calendar and remember it’s time to book another appointment with Anna for this MS necessity myself.
Dan and Jennifer Digmann
Dan and his wife Jennifer Digmann are active in the MS community as public speakers, writers, and advocates. They contribute regularly to their award-winning blog, and are authors of “Despite MS, to Spite MS,” a collection of personal stories about their life together with multiple sclerosis.
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