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Massage and Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on April 13, 2022

A great massage can help melt away stress and relax muscles. It may also ease certain multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms. But it’s important to be aware of the pros and cons. You’ll also want to learn how to find a qualified massage therapist who has worked with people who have MS.

Talk with your doctor before you try any complementary therapy, including massage. They can let you know if it may be helpful and safe for you.

How Do You Find a Qualified Massage Therapist?

You can search for one online through the American Massage Therapy Association. The right massage therapist for you should have training in giving massages to people with MS. Or at the very least, they should be knowledgeable about multiple sclerosis.

You can find out what licensing rules your state has for massage therapists here.

What Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms Can Massage Help With?

Once you find a massage therapist, tell them what MS symptoms you’ve been having before each session. Let them know about any changes in your symptoms, too. That can give them an idea of which parts of your body to avoid and which style of massage to do. Also let your massage therapist know if you have any other health conditions.

Massage won’t change the course of your MS, but it might help ease or ward off symptoms like these:

Spasticity. This common symptom involves feelings of stiffness and muscle spasms. It can also take a toll on your ability to move certain joints through their full range of motion. Massage may help by relaxing your muscles. It might also improve how well you do range-of-motion exercises as part of a gentle stretching routine.

Pain. This is another common symptom of MS. The disease can bring on pain by damaging the lining of nerves in your brain and spinal cord (also called the central nervous system). You may also have pain due to other MS-related complications. Massage may calm your pain by easing muscle tension and possibly releasing feel-good chemicals called endorphins. If you want to try using massage as a way to control your pain, be sure to get your doctor’s OK first.

Fatigue. About 80% of people with MS have bouts of tiredness that can keep them from getting things done at work, school, or home. A massage therapist may be able to ease your fatigue with gentle but vigorous strokes that stimulate peripheral nerves outside your brain and spinal cord.

Sleep woes. Trouble getting shut-eye is more common in people with MS than in those without it. Not getting enough sleep can make you feel drowsy during the day, and it could make certain MS symptoms feel worse.

A massage therapist can use soothing strokes to help you relax and possibly sleep better.

Pressure sores. These are also called bedsores. If MS causes you to sit or lie in one position for a long time, the constant pressure on certain body parts could cut off their blood supply and make the skin break down, leading to sores. Sliding across your bed or a wheelchair seat could also cause pressure sores due to the friction on your skin.

Massage may help you avoid getting pressure sores. But you shouldn’t get a massage on a body part that already has a sore or a reddish, inflamed area.

Poor circulation. A rubdown could also help lower your chances of this problem linked to multiple sclerosis. If you’re not very active due to MS, massage might help blood flow through your body better – and that could lower your chances for serious health complications.

The friction between your skin and a massage therapist’s fingers can improve circulation through veins close to your body’s surface. The therapist may also improve blood flow through deeper blood vessels by massaging skin that they gently lift and squeeze. They can use light stroking to help widen or expand blood vessels called capillaries, too.

When Might Massage for MS Be Unsafe?

Talk to your doctor first if you have any of these conditions:

Edema. When you’re living with MS, it’s common to have swollen feet and ankles due to a buildup of lymph fluid (which carries infection- and disease-fighting cells through your body). Doctors call this lymphedema, and it tends to happen when someone with MS becomes less mobile. It’s one of several types of edema, which is swelling due to extra fluid stuck in your body’s tissues.

If you have edema, your doctor needs to figure out the cause before you start getting massages. There are lots of possible reasons someone could have this condition, including problems like heart or kidney disease. But if your doctor says you have edema because you’re less mobile, then gentle massage may help. Your massage therapist may be able to move fluid from your affected body part back into circulation by using certain light massage techniques.

Osteoporosis. This condition causes thinning bones that are more likely to break. Your chances of getting it could go up if you become less mobile and do fewer weight-bearing activities because of MS. Using corticosteroid drugs (which treat MS relapses) too often or for long periods of time can also weaken your bones.

If your doctor tells you that you have osteoporosis, don’t get massages unless they say it’s OK.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society also says it’s important to check with your doctor before you get a massage if you:

  • Have ulcers or an enlarged liver or spleen
  • Were recently injured
  • Have been diagnosed with cancer, arthritis, or heart disease
  • Are pregnant

MS flare-up. If you get new MS symptoms or old ones come back, ask your doctor if you should avoid getting a massage.

Can Massage Cause Side Effects?

Some people say they’ve had minor side effects like a headache, muscle pain, and tiredness after a massage.

Your massage therapist shouldn’t use high heat or cold on you. These temps can make your MS symptoms worse. The therapist should also make sure the room they treat you in isn’t too hot or chilly.

Some folks with MS need to keep a certain amount of muscle tone to move well. If they relax too much during a massage, they could have trouble walking when they get off the massage table. A therapist who’s qualified to work on people with MS should know what changes they need to make if this happens to you.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

National Multiple Sclerosis Society: “Massage and Bodywork,” “Fatigue,” “Sleep,” “Stretching for People with MS,” “Pain,” “Pressure Sores,” “Osteoporosis,” “Lymphedema in Multiple Sclerosis.”

MS Focus: “22 Things to Know About Massage Therapy Before You Go,” “8 Natural Circulation Boosters,” “Slowing Down and Swelling Up: Ankles and Feet are at Risk.”

National Institutes of Health: “How drugs could repair damage from multiple sclerosis.”

American Massage Therapy Association: “Find a Massage Therapist,” “State Regulations.”

Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: “The Effects of Massage Therapy on Multiple Sclerosis Patients' Quality of Life and Leg Function.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Edema.”

Mayo Clinic: “Edema.”

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