Arthritis & Massage Part 1

There are many different kinds of arthritis. This article explains the basics of osteoarthritis, which is often thought of as the “wear and tear” type of arthritis. It is a degenerative condition of the joints, especially weight-bearing joints like hips and knees, but also fingers and other joints. An estimated 27 million Americans have osteoarthritis according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2005 study).

Basic Explanation: The ends of bones are covered in cartilage. The cartilage of one bone rests on top of the cartilage of the other bone, allowing smooth movement of the joint. If even the slightest bit of damage occurs to the cartilage of one bone it will start to irritate and tear into the cartilage of the other bone. This leads to more irritation and inflammation of the joint capsule.

Once there is damage to the cartilage, the joint cannot function properly or move smoothly. The body may try to “rebuild” the joint by causing new bone to form. But this actually makes the problem worse. Sometimes these bony growths prevent the joint from moving properly by actually getting in the way. This process also leads to pain. My good friend, Hailey Paton, Physical Therapist told me that injury to ligaments and tendons, which causes scar tissue to form and irritate and disrupt the movement of the joint, can also eventually lead to arthritis. She mentioned that hereditary factors and being obese can lead to osteoarthritis.

Once damage occurs, surrounding muscles react. “Any muscles that cross a stiff, painful, and constantly aggravated joint will tend to tighten up. That’s what muscles do when they are in constant pain. It’s also likely that they would develop some trigger points in the process, because they won’t really get to relax as long as that joint is in pain. And the tension they cause will compress the joint, making it even more painful, which will reinforce the spasm, and so on.” A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Pathology, by Ruth Werner. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins 1998 p. 78. Decreasing muscle tension is one of the things that massage is best at! Isn’t that handy.

Diagnosis: I found the Arthritis Foundation website very helpful. “In order to make a diagnosis of osteoarthritis, your doctor will ask about your medical history and symptoms, then conduct a physical exam, paying special attention to your joints and how they move. Traditionally, an osteoarthritis diagnosis is made only after joint pain and stiffness becomes persistent and an X-ray shows loss of cartilage and resulting damage to bones. However, research is pursuing ways to detect osteoarthritis sooner.” See more here.

Treatment: There are many treatments available to those with arthritis. As arthritis continues, more aggressive treatments may be appropriate. Movement of joints with arthritis seems to be recommended by most sources because movement is how joints are lubricated and nourished. Treatments may include such things as medications for pain, medications for inflammation, injections, acupuncture, chiropractic, assistive devices (cane, walker, etc.), surgery, hot and cold therapy and nutritional changes.

In my research on the web, I found this great article in Arthritis Today. It summarizes ways in which massage can help. Here are some highlights. Massage can:
•    Reduce pain
•    Decrease stiffness
•    Increase range of motion
•    Improve hand grip strength
•    Increase overall function of the joints
Both professional massage and self-massage can benefit a person with arthritis.

If you have arthritis and would like to explore if massage would be a good part of your overall treatment plan, please call me. We can discuss it with your health care professionals and create a customized treatment plan for you. Remember, I’m not a doctor and cannot diagnose any medical condition including arthritis. Please do not regard this article as a comprehensive treatise on arthritis. However, I hope you have found it useful. I am planning more articles on arthritis. Next up is: Arthritis & Nutrition (a guest post with Jill Brook), and Arthritis & Massage Part 2 (exploring arthritis of the spine). A special thanks to Hailey Paton, Physical Therapist, for her help on this article.


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