Massage for Fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia, also called fibrosis, is a pain disorder that affects 3-7% of the world population. Its exact cause is unknown, but possible triggers are traumatic injury or viral infection. Symptoms range from mild to severe and include muscular pain, sleep disturbances, stiffness, headaches, memory problems, anxiety, and mood swings. Of those, the widespread muscular pain and tenderness are the most prevalent.
The disorder is often treated with medications, cognitive behavioral therapy, and stress-reducing activities such as yoga. Massage is also a common way to treat fibromyalgia, but which modality is the best? It really depends on the patient’s symptoms and goals. Some will prefer a relaxing Swedish massage, whereas others will benefit from a corrective sports massage with passive stretching and myofascial release. A combination of both Swedish and sports massage can be helpful too.
More importantly, are there any massage modalities that should be avoided? Yes, and that would be deep tissue massage. First, I’ll explain why Swedish massage and sports massage are effective for fibromyalgia. I’ll address the reasons for avoiding deep tissue massage towards the end.
What Massage is Best for Fibromyalgia Pain?
Known for its slow glides and gentle kneading, Swedish massage is generally used for relaxation. This aspect does more than treat the mood imbalances brought on by fibromyalgia, however. Swedish massage can also be used as a preventative measure, as symptoms can surface or worsen in times of emotional stress.
Though not as intensive as a deep tissue massage, Swedish massage does offer pain relief. Digging into a sore muscle helps break up adhesions, for sure, but it’s not the only way to reduce pain. Swedish massage improves circulation, which increases the flow of oxygen and nutrients necessary for muscle repair. In addition to that, Swedish massage stimulates a surge of endorphins, which will both improve mood and ease the pain.
Endorphins aren’t the only chemicals released during a Swedish massage. Serotonin, which promotes the flow of melatonin, is also released. This is why massage is also used to combat sleep disturbances, another fibromyalgia symptom. A combination of restful sleep, reduced pain, and stress relief may be enough to fight off the fibro-fog (the headaches and inability to concentrate brought on by the disorder.)
When stiffness is a more prominent symptom than the others, sports massage might be the best treatment. However, it will have to be altered for a fibromyalgia patient. Deep pressure, which is often used in sports massage, should be avoided. Instead, the massage should focus on assisted stretching to improve the patient’s flexibility.
The tender spots on the body can be treated with myofascial release, a technique commonly used in sports massage. Myofascial release will address the tender spots on the body, but with gentle pressure. The fascia, when it becomes sticky from stress, pushes down on the nerves below and compresses them into the muscular tissue; this adhesion is what causes trigger points. In the case of fibromyalgia, myofascial release is more beneficial than trigger point therapy, which is another technique often used in sports massage. Trigger point therapy is intense, deep, and usually painful. In the next section, I’ll elaborate on why deep work isn’t ideal for fibromyalgia.
Why to Avoid Deep Tissue Massage for Fibromyalgia Pain
Deep tissue massage, though therapeutic for most people, can lead to muscular discomfort the day after the session. This is normal, and usually no cause for alarm. But this side effect won’t be therapeutic for someone with fibromyalgia. The pain can worsen the other symptoms of the disorder; the stiffness, fatigue, and poor mood especially.
On its own, a deep tissue massage itself may not be relaxing for a person with fibromyalgia. The massage won’t feel like a good hurt and can cause the muscles to spasm under the deep pressure. The widespread tender spots won’t be able to relax, and nor will the patient’s mind. To sum it up, deep tissue massage can do the complete opposite of what the client needs.
Things to Consider
If patients have a go-to topical pain reliever, such as Biofreeze or CBD oil, they should consider bringing it to the session and asking the therapist to use it in the massage. When scheduling a session, it’s helpful to ask which therapists are comfortable using the ointment.
Heat therapy should be another consideration. By increasing the blood flow to painful areas, heat application is an effective and relaxing fibromyalgia treatment. Hot packs, warmed towelettes, and hot stones can be added to the massage if the supplies are available.
Schedule your appointment today! Ask which therapists specialize in fibromyalgia treatment.
Author, Licensed Massage Therapist
Katrina Jenkins graduated from Towson University in 2013 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Health Science and worked as a nurse’s aide briefly before pursuing her true passion. She graduated from the Massage Therapy Institute of Colorado in April 2016 with honors and completed the Touch of Healers Scholarship Program the following summer. She has been a part of the Moyer Total Wellness Team since the summer of 2017.
Boomershine, Chad S. “What Is the Prevalence of Fibromyalgia?” Medscape, 23 Apr. 2020, www.medscape.com/answers/329838-18841/what-is-the-prevalence-of-fibromyalgia.
Li, Yan-hui, et al. “Massage Therapy for Fibromyalgia: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.” PloS One, Public Library of Science, 20 Feb. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3930706/.
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Fibromyalgia.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 7 Oct. 2020, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/fibromyalgia/symptoms-causes/syc-20354780.
Canva by Pornpak Khunatorn