Massage therapy can be an effective alternative treatment for managing physical symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome in addition to conventional treatment.
Massage involves manipulation of the body tissues to bring about improvements in health such as increased relaxation, improved sleep and relief from muscular aches and pains. (Western Journal of Medicine, 2001)
Almost all cultures have developed massage systems. These techniques play an important role in traditional Chinese and Indian medicinal system.
Today, massage therapies are used to promote relaxation, treat painful muscular conditions, and reduce anxiety.
This post goes over the research and benefits of massage therapy for chronic fatigue syndrome.
How Massage Therapy Can Help In ME/CFS?
Massage can help as an add-on therapy for chronic fatigue syndrome as it helps relieve pain, inflammation and fatigue severity. It improves circulation, muscle tension and relieves stress and anxiety.
According to a study published in the journal – Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion, 2010 treatment with Chinese massage therapy, Tuina was found to be more effective than exercise and antidepressant (fluoxetine) in reducing symptoms of ME/CFS. Tuina helped improve antioxidant defences in the patients and this, in turn, lowered fatigue.
The best part of the therapy is the lack of side effects associated with it.
Massage Therapy for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Research & Benefits
Here are a few research studies that have investigated the benefits of massage therapy for ME/CFS treatment.
1. Massage therapy may relieve symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome
Fatigue, tiredness and exhaustion are the most prominent symptoms of ME/CFS. Gentle massage therapy can help lower perceived fatigue and promote relaxation.
Yao and colleagues have observed that a combination of acupressure and massage therapy helps relieve symptoms of ME/CFS. In their study, patients were treated with massage and pressing of Back-Shu points and acupoints on the head. 78 out of 85 patients found that the treatment was effective in reducing symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. (Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion, 2007)
Tuina is a Chinese massage therapy which literally means ‘pinch and pull’. It involves acupressure where practitioners use finger pressure instead of needles to stimulate acupuncture points.
Chinese researchers Liu and Lei have investigated the positive effects of Tuina massage in ME/CFS.
90 patients participated in the study. The patients were randomly assigned to a Tuina group, a Taijiquan (an exercise) group and a Fluoxetine (antidepressant) group. They were administered their corresponding treatments.
Markers of oxidative stress (imbalance between prooxidant and antioxidant defences) were studied.
The therapeutic effect of the Tuina group was found to be superior to that of the Taijiquan group and the Fluoxetine group.
Post-treatment, a decrease in the malondialdehyde content and superoxide dismutase activity (pro-oxidant enzymes) was also observed. Massage therapy reduced oxidative stress in ME/CFS.
Indeed, a disturbance between pro-oxidant and antioxidant agents is observed in chronic fatigue syndrome. Patients with ME/CFS have higher levels of oxidative stress markers in their blood such as plasma peroxides than healthy individuals.
Very few studies have explored the potential benefits of massage therapy in chronic fatigue syndrome treatment.
We need more robust, well-designed clinical trials to understand the utility of massage therapy in ME/CFS.
Quick Gist: Very few studies have explored the effects of massage therapy as an alternative treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome. These studies have observed that the therapy helps reduce oxidative stress and improves physical symptoms of CFS.
However, these results should be interpreted with caution as the studies lack a robust clinical design.
2. It can reduce stress in chronic fatigue syndrome
Excessive fatigue hampers daily functioning and leads to increased stress levels in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. Disturbance in cortisol (stress hormone) levels as well as inflammation can worsen stress and depressive symptoms in ME/CFS.
Gentle massage can help relieve stress and promote relaxation in chronic fatigue syndrome. It lowers blood pressure, respiratory rate and helps release endorphins or feel-good chemicals in our body that relieve stress and pain.
A group of Swedish researchers have confirmed the anti-stress effect of massage in healthy individuals. (Autonomic Neuroscience: Basic & Clinical, 2010) Massage therapy for 80 minutes was found to reduce heart rate significantly, indicating a reduced stress response. Heart rate variance, cortisol and insulin levels decreased whereas glucose levels remained stable.
A study shows that 1-hour session of Traditional Thai massage for 2 weeks is found to lower stress levels as evidenced by the reduction in salivary alpha-amylase levels (biological markers of stress).
Swedish massage helps reduce physical symptoms of anxiety and stress. It may help reduce exhaustion and associated anxiety and mental fatigue in patients with ME/CFS.
Aromatherapy massage involves the use of essential oils which contain therapeutic compounds that help relieve pain and improve blood circulation. Also, their fragrance promotes relaxation.
A study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 2014 highlighted the positive effect of aromatherapy massage on stress levels in healthy individuals. 4-week treatment was found to reduce anxiety, cortisol levels and it increased plasma Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor levels (a protein that is essential for optimal growth of neurons).
Lavender and geranium essentials oils were used. Post-therapy, brain activity was measured in the form of brain waves.
Alpha-brain wave activities were seen to be enhanced and delta wave activities were markedly reduced following treatment. This kind of brain activity is similar to that observed in meditation and neurofeedback training.
These findings suggest that massage therapy may help relieve stress and improve the quality of life in ME/CFS
Quick Gist: Massage therapy lowers stress levels by influencing the cortisol levels. This can be relevant for mitigating stress-related symptoms in ME/CFS.
3. It may reduce inflammation and influence immune responses in ME/CFS
Immune disturbances are one of the pathological mechanisms that cause chronic fatigue syndrome. Cytokines are biological agents that participate in inflammation and immune function. Research shows that daily fluctuations in cytokine levels are indicative of inflammation and correlate with fatigue severity in ME/CFS.
Massage therapy can help lower inflammation and alter immune responses to relieve pain and fatigue in ME/CFS.
Rapaport and colleagues conducted a study to compare the biological effects of repeated Swedish massage therapy to light touch in healthy individuals. Participants received either 45 minutes of Swedish massage or light touch protocol that mimicked massage therapy.
Weekly treatment stimulated an increase in the number of immune cells, lymphocytes and lowered levels of Interleukin-5, IL-10, IL-13, IL-2 and Tumor necrosis factor, a protein that participates in inflammation. Contrastingly, participants in the touch group experienced an increase in these parameters.
Twice weekly treatment lowered cortisol levels and enhanced immune responses.
Massage therapy helps reduce inflammation following eccentric exercise and mechanical stress. (Journal of Athletic Training, 2014)
Christine and fellow researchers postulate that massage therapy activates immunomodulatory pathways that lowers inflammation, prevents secondary injury, reduces activation of nerve fibres and relieves pain.
Further, they proposed that the therapy promotes a restorative environment and supports recovery.
These findings suggest that massage may help lower inflammation and pain in ME/CFS.
Quick Gist: Massage therapy may have a modestly positive effect on inflammation and immune function. This may help relieve inflammation and fatigue in chronic fatigue syndrome.
4. Massage can reduce pain in chronic fatigue syndrome
Apart from severe fatigue, patients with chronic fatigue syndrome often experience pain. However, it is seldom considered in the treatment regimen and research studies.
Massage therapy, if implemented correctly, can help provide pain relief in ME/CFS. It reduces muscle stiffness.
It also supports release of endorphins- natural compounds produced in our body that help relieve pain and improve mood.
Among the different types, Thai massage is found to significantly effective for pain relief. Its pain relief effect may last for as long as up to 15 weeks. (Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 2015)
Quick Gist: Massage therapy can be utilised as an adjunct therapy for relieving pain in chronic fatigue syndrome. Research studies have found it useful for reducing chronic lower back and neck pain.
What massage technique can help in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
Research studies have found Swedish massage, Tuina, Acupressure with massage beneficial for reducing symptoms of ME/CFS. Aromatherapy massage may also be beneficial as essential oils have stress relief and analgesic action.
Duration of the session could be anywhere between 20 minutes to 60 minutes for 4-8 weeks. This period should be sufficient to witness therapeutic results.
Note: The symptoms and severity of ME/CFS differ with every individual. This could influence the use/ effectiveness of dietary supplements, herbs and alternative treatments for ME/CFS. Consult a therapist to derive best results of massage therapy.
Precautions with Massage Therapy
Massage therapy is a safe and effective natural treatment, however, a few precautions must be noted.
Avoid consuming a heavy meal before the treatment. Also avoid the therapy if you have a fever or severe malaise.
If you are experiencing severe pain, work with your therapist to let them know about what level of pressure you can tolerate. This is extremely important in case you are experiencing allodynia- pain in response to a stimulus that generally does not cause pain.
If you are using essential oils, please ensure they are diluted and conduct a patch test first.
Please consult your therapist about which technique would suit your health.
Massage therapy is an alternative therapy that can help relieve physical symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome such as fatigue and pain. It cannot be thought of as a cure but can be utilised as an add-on therapy to conventional treatment.
Techniques such as Tuina and Swedish massage have been known to reduce the levels of agents that cause oxidative damage and relieve anxiety.
High levels of stress and disturbance in cortisol activity can contribute to fatigue severity in ME/CFS.
Massage therapy is found to lower stress levels by modulating cortisol levels (a hormone that participates in stress response).
It may help relieve inflammation and chronic pain.
The scientific literature on the effectiveness of massage therapy for ME/CFS is nascent at the moment, but anecdotal pieces of evidence suggest that it is an effective add-on natural therapy for reducing certain symptoms of ME/CFS.
Have you benefited from massage therapy? Do share your experience in the comments section below.