A giant weed is laying across the red of a swollen body. There are outlines of hands around the leaves massaging the weeds away.

Massage for MS: Sweet, Sweet Relief

My last deep tissue massage occurred 15 months ago, a few weeks before Washington state went into pandemic lockdown. While others have lamented being unable to safely get a haircut or visit family, my deepest loss has been my monthly massage. This form of alternative medicine has helped me manage my MS pain for years.

Conquering pain with massage

MS isn’t my only source of pain. So is yard work! Losing my trips to massage therapy last year, unfortunately, coincided with the labors of the spring—weeding, pruning, planting, and other chores. I quickly became “reacquainted” with muscles freshly released from winter hibernation, leaving me with steady and unrelenting pain.

My not-so-young body also faces arthritis. At age 55, I’m not yet ready to admit I’m not the nimble, athletic person I once was. But the healing powers of gardening provide such a boost to my mental health that it’s worth it...as long as I have a massage.

“Little Napoleons”

This month, when I finally visited my massage therapist, Lizz, post-vaccine, two spring gardening seasons and a fall gardening season had already passed. I’ve seen Lizz for over a decade now, so she knows the pain landscape of my body. Her massages have been, for me and my MS body, a kind of revelation. She’s intuitively aware of my pain points, which she identifies as tiny “Napoleon” muscles that wreak the most havoc and cause the most pain. The little Napoleons have won more often than not since the beginning of the pandemic. Going to Lizz this month has been like banishing them to their own little Waterloo.

Deep tissue massage for MS

There are numerous kinds of massage. For me, the deep tissue technique, which can sometimes be uncomfortable, has been the most effective in unlocking my stiff muscles. Deep tissue massage targets deep layers of muscle, ligaments, and connective tissues (sometimes called fascia). This form of massage does more than relax tissues. The technique also lengthens muscles, improves circulation, increases the flow of fluid across the fascia, and restores range of motion.

You’ve heard how MS can make your legs feel heavy, like they’re made of cement? That describes me! Lizz laughs and says that massaging my thick muscular calves is like “massaging concrete curbs.” But when she’s done pressing the knots out of my legs, I find my muscles loose, soft, and smooth. It’s kind of a miracle, honestly. I do wonder, though: how much of her work on me puts a strain on her, given how she’s basically used her fingers, knuckles, and elbows like crowbars to get the job done?

Is it safe?

Any therapy you seek out to manage pain involves risk. You’re best advised to consult your neurologist about the benefits and risks of deep tissue massage to treat your MS-related pain. Also, seek out a massage therapist who understands MS.

Lizz’s extensive nursing and massage training mean she understands the functions of the central and peripheral nervous systems. She knows about MS-related muscle spasticity and that people with MS may be heat sensitive or intolerant. Many massage therapists use hot hydropacks and heated beds which may be inappropriate, especially if your MS leads to spasms if you become overheated. For instance, the MS hug, a spasming of the muscles of breathing along the ribs, can be triggered by a sudden increase in core body temperature.1

Also, I find that massage therapy and chiropractic care complement each other. Seeing Lizz first to loosen my muscles makes it much easier to see my chiropractor, who then releases and realigns my joints.

Is it affordable?

It depends. Deep tissue massage may or may not be covered by insurance. You can talk to your doctor about getting a referral if that’s what your insurance coverage requires. Sometimes, getting physical therapy (PT) may be a more affordable option. Some massage therapists may not work with insurance but can offer cash-pay discounts that include free sessions if you buy them ahead in a bundle. And you don’t need a referral.

Alternatives to massage

Without Lizz to manipulate my little Napoleons into submission during the lockdown, I’ve had to resort to other pain relief approaches.

I turn to several of these even when I do have access to massage but can’t get an appointment for a few days. These options include:

  • TENS
  • Epsom salt baths (I love the lavender aromatherapy option)
  • Yoga
  • Foam roller
  • Baclofen and Advil in combination (often the only way to defeat a persistent MS hug)

Meanwhile, I’m so glad to be back on the table again with Lizz. Her work on my hips may have been uncomfortable, but when I left, I felt taller and my hips definitely felt looser. Best of all, they were pain-free for the first time in months.

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