Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic neurological disorder affecting an estimated 100,000 Canadians, in which the immune system inexplicably seems to attack the protective myelin sheaths surrounding the brain and spinal cords’ nerve fibres. While the unpredictable nature of the disease leads to a wide range of symptoms, it generally results in abnormal firing of the upper motor neurons, causing painful muscle spasticity and a loss of mobility.
MS most commonly afflicts people in their primes, between the ages of 20 and 40, in regions far from the equator, like Canada. The cause isn’t clearly understood and no cure has yet been discovered. Although the majority of conventional medical treatments involve pharmaceuticals to lessen the frequency and severity of attacks, most MS sufferers seek relief through alternative treatments, including massage therapy.
Students in registered massage therapy training learn the nature and causes of diseases like MS so they may deliver the most effective treatment for their diverse patients. Here are some ways that massage therapy has alleviated the symptoms of patients with MS.
The flaring and abating of MS symptoms can make initial diagnosis difficult and therapeutic treatment challenging. The damage to the central nervous system often causes muscle weakness, tremors and partial paralysis, and also exaggerated muscle reflex or spasticity. Joint stiffness makes walking, coordination and balance difficult. Other symptoms include constipation, anxiety, depression and fatigue.
Massage therapy can promote the integrity of muscle tissue for easier movement, improving blood circulation to alleviate atrophy, or stiff joints. Massage therapists with registered massage therapist training work within the client’s particular needs, avoiding mechanical treatment during acute inflammation and only working into tissue where the patient has sensation. Patients with MS are more prone to bone-thinning osteoporosis and edema—a swelling caused by excessive watery fluid in cells, tissues or body cavities. With these conditions, registered massage therapists (RMTs) generally commence treatment only after advice from the patient’s physician.
While massage therapy isn’t meant to cure MS, its capacities for stress reduction, pain relief and muscle stimulation or relaxation can significantly improve an MS patient’s quality of life. In anecdotal reports, Swedish massage and deep tissue work have been found to diminish accumulated tension, promoting circulation, flexibility, and range of motion.
As stress can trigger or exacerbate symptoms, the calming strokes of massage therapy can provide ongoing relief and boost the body’s natural painkillers.
The light strokes of massage can increase capillary dilation and blood flow, helping patients regain sensation and motor function in affected areas while improving overall structural balance. RMT Gwen Crowell uses a reflex response technique to maintain a balance between releasing spasticity and maintaining sufficient body tone for the patient to function. “If you relax someone with MS too much, they can’t walk when they get off the table,” she notes in an interview with Massage Bodywork Magazine.
While there is no specific massage therapy that will be effective for all patients living with MS, registered massage therapy education can enable RMTs to relieve MS symptoms and stress according to the patient’s unique requirements.
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