If you’ve ever had a back rub after a long day, you know that massage can instantly melt away general aches and pains. But what can it do for the joint pain that comes with rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?
An estimated 1.3 million adults live with RA joint pain. And if you’re one of them, you might already use a wide array of remedies to manage your flare-ups. But if you’ve been looking to expand your RA toolkit, here’s some good news: Research suggests that massage could bring some much-needed relief.
Below, we’ll dive into massage for rheumatoid arthritis, including the benefits, research, and tips to remember before starting.
What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the many types of arthritis (aka any condition relating to joint pain or disease).
In specific, RA occurs when the immune system attacks its own tissues, causing damage in the joint lining. And even though it’s notorious for joint pain — especially in the hips, hands, wrists, knees, and shoulders — it can also affect other tissues in the body.
Some people with RA might not notice symptoms for long stretches of time. But when the symptoms return, they may experience a flare-up that lasts anywhere from a few hours to months.
These flare-ups are often unpredictable. But sometimes, they can happen because of triggers like stress, overexertion, or even lack of sleep.
The symptoms of RA joint pain can differ for everyone, but they may include:
- Pain and swelling in the joints (often affecting the same joints on both sides of the body)
- Joint stiffness that feels worse in the morning
Who Gets Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Anyone can suffer from RA joint pain, but a few factors may make you more prone to it. These include:
- Age: Older adults are more likely to have RA.
- Sex: According to the Arthritis Foundation, women are three times more likely to suffer from RA than men.
- Genetics: Certain genes have been linked to RA.
- Other factors, such as smoking or obesity, may increase your odds of developing this condition.
Rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t yet have a cure, but the good news is that certain treatments can support your quality of life, soothe pain, and keep damage at bay.
With the guidance of your healthcare team, you can figure out your best steps toward pain relief. Experts also note that it’s important to seek treatment as soon as you notice symptoms, so you can limit the impact that RA has on your future joint health.
Depending on your needs, your treatment plan may include:
- Prescription medications known as DMARDs
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Physical or occupational therapy
Massage Therapy and Rheumatoid Arthritis: What Are the Benefits?
Massage therapy is a natural, soothing tool used to break up muscle stiffness, relax the body, and ease pain. And for those living with rheumatoid arthritis, it can have a profound impact on overall well-being.
With its ability to support healthy blood flow, decrease stress, and send calming signals to the brain, it’s one of the best ways to unwind and relax. Plus, it supports mobility and range of motion — two factors that are often impacted by RA.
The Research So Far
Researchers are still studying massage for RA joint pain, but some early studies have found promising results. For example:
2022 Trial on Swedish Massage for RA Pain
In a 2022 trial, researchers looked at whether Swedish massage — known for its light strokes and gentle touch — could soothe the symptoms of RA. In the study, 60 participants were divided into two groups. One group received routine care, while the other received regular Swedish massage for eight weeks.
Incredibly, the researchers found that those who received massage reported less pain and used fewer painkillers by the end of the trial.
2013 Trial on Massage and RA in the Upper Limbs
In another 2013 randomized controlled trial, researchers looked at how massage affected 42 adults with RA pain in the upper limbs. Each participant was randomly assigned to a group: light-pressure or moderate-pressure massage.
Once a week for four weeks, a masseuse gave each participant a massage, using the pressure level that corresponded to their group. The masseuse also taught each participant a few self-massage methods they could use at home.
Remarkably, the moderate pressure group had better grip strength, less pain, and a greater range of motion by the end of the trial. In other words, it was found that moderate-pressure massage offered the most benefits for those with RA pain.
Massage Techniques for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Feeling curious about trying massage for RA joint pain? If so, there are many gentle and simple ways to try it at home.
Below are some of the easiest techniques to help you get started:
Note: Massage is generally safe and relaxing, but it may not be suitable for everyone. Be sure to check with your doctor or rheumatologist before beginning.
Skin rolling is a light-pressure massage technique used to relax the top layers of soft tissue. The main benefit of using this method is that it’s easy to do on yourself — and since it involves very light pressure, it won’t tire out your hands.
Essentially, it just involves lifting your skin away from the muscle tissue and rolling it between your fingers. To get an idea of how it works, you can lift some skin from the back of your hand and gently massage it between your thumb and pointer finger.
Stroking is another soothing massage technique you can try at home. As the name suggests, it involves using your hand to create long, soft, linear motions across the muscles.
Stroking is one of the most common techniques a masseuse will use to start a session, as it can help promote deep physical relaxation in the body. To try it, simply use your thumb or palm to glide down and along your muscles with light-to-moderate pressure.
Try: Self-Massage for Arm & Hand Pain
The hands and fingers are often among the earliest areas to feel RA joint pain. Thankfully, this simple, 5-minute massage may be able to bring a sense of relief. Simply:
- Hold your hand out in front of you. Then, use your opposite hand to knead your palm for 20 to 30 seconds.
- Gently squeeze each finger for 5 seconds, being careful to dial back the pressure if anything feels painful or unpleasant.
- Use long strokes to gently massage the forearm for one to two minutes. (If needed, feel free to add a few drops of oil here.)
- Repeat these steps for 3 to 5 minutes.
Try: Self-Massage for Foot Pain
Another common hotspot for RA joint pain is the feet, ankles, and toes — especially if your daily activities require lots of time on your feet.
Fortunately, a simple foot massage could make a world of difference in your comfort level. Here are the steps:
- Start by sitting on a chair, couch, or the end of a bed. Then, cross one leg up over your opposite knee so that you can easily access your foot.
- Warm up the tissue by using your thumbs to knead in continuous outward motions, starting from the center of your foot’s arch. Repeat for 60 seconds.
- Then, use small, circular motions to massage the entire foot, starting at the heel and making your way up to each of the toes.
- For broader relief, use soft, kneading motions to massage the lower calf muscle for 1 to 2 minutes more.
- Repeat for a total of 5 minutes.
Types of Professional Massage to Try for RA Joint Pain
If you want to implement regular therapeutic massage into your life, there’s no better person to connect with than a professional masseuse.
To get started, you can call your local spa or massage clinic to schedule a visit with a therapist of your choosing. (It’s even better if you can see someone who has specific training in arthritis!)
During your session, your masseuse may recommend a variety of massage modalities. Some of the most popular options for joint pain include:
Swedish massage is famous for being the most relaxing form of massage — and not only is it beginner-friendly, but it can also be an excellent choice for those with sensitive joints.
It involves long, gliding strokes to help relax the body, relieve pain, and support mobility. The specific techniques involved in Swedish massage include:
- Long, light-pressure gliding motions
- Kneading, rolling, and squeezing
- Moderate friction to help break up scar tissue and knots
- Rhythmic tapping or vibration to stimulate muscle tissue
Myofascial release is a massage method that involves using sustained pressure to alleviate tension in the muscles and fascia.
Sometimes, massage therapists might combine myofascial release with other modalities during a session. For example, they may start with a soothing Swedish massage, only opting for myofascial techniques when they come across a knot or tight spot.
So, what kind of benefits can this modality bring for RA joint pain? It may:
- Enhance blood flow
- Bring relief from pain and soreness
- Promote whole-body relaxation
Hot Stone Massage
Do you often reach for heating pads or hop in a warm bath to ease your RA pain? If so, you might be a perfect candidate for a hot stone massage.
In a hot stone session, smooth basalt stones are warmed and gently applied to your body. From there, the massage therapist will use the stones to stroke, knead, and massage different muscles and problem areas.
This type of massage provides many classic benefits – like better blood flow and relaxation. But when it comes to RA pain specifically, you may find that the heat brings you even deeper relief.
Tips to Get the Most Out of Massage for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Ready to try massage for rheumatoid arthritis? Here are some key tips that can help you stay safe and get the most out of every session:
Start with Lighter Touch & Adjust as You Go
If you’re like most people, the idea of a deep tissue massage might sound enticing. But the truth is, many people with RA joint pain don’t need extreme pressure to achieve the results they’re seeking.
After all, the best (and safest) way to massage is to start with light pressure and adjust as needed. And while you might feel a little discomfort when working through knots or adhesions, massage should never be downright painful — especially not when you’re using it to combat joint pain.
Overall, feel free to explore different massage pressures, as some with RA do enjoy deeper tissue options. Just remember to stay mindful of your body’s signals along the way, and switch back to lighter pressure when needed.
Make Massage a Regular Part of Your Routine
Many of massage’s effects are “in-the-moment” – meaning the best way to reap the benefits is to use it regularly.
Of course, visiting a massage therapist every week isn’t always practical or cost-effective, and that’s okay. As an alternative, you can spend some time learning easy self-massage techniques to use at home. In addition, you can:
- Talk with your rheumatologist about their recommendations
- Schedule a visit with a masseuse and ask them for self-massage tips
- Explore trusted online resources to learn different techniques
- Invest in physician-trusted tools for more effortless home massage
Avoid Working Directly on a Flare-Up
When you’re experiencing a flare-up, you might feel the urge to directly massage the affected area. However, it’s best not to aggravate a joint that’s already inflamed, swollen, or irritated. Instead, a better option might be to wait or target the surrounding tissue with a gentle massage.
For example, if your wrist was giving you trouble, you could try massaging the muscles in the upper forearm as opposed to the wrist itself.
Precautions and Risks of Massage for RA
Aside from being mindful of your RA flare-ups, there are some other times when you should ask your doctor before trying massage. Be sure to check with your healthcare team if:
- You have any skin condition(s) that may become aggravated by touch
- You’re dealing with any recent acute injuries
- You’re currently pregnant
- You have other health conditions such as blood clotting disorders, kidney conditions, uncontrolled hypertension, or anything else that hasn’t been OK’d for massage in the past
Other Remedies and Lifestyle Changes for Relief
At the end of the day, massage therapy is just one way to complement your RA treatment plan — but when you could use some extra relief, other natural remedies may be able to help. Talk to your doctor about:
Heat and Cold Therapy
Both heat and cold can be effective tools when you’re dealing with RA-related aches and stiffness. Heat works by dilating the blood vessels and promoting healthy circulation, which can ease muscle tension and alter your sensations of pain.
On the other hand, cold constricts the blood vessels and can reduce inflammation, leading to a “numbing” sensation in tender areas.
Here are some ways to try heat and cold therapy:
- Try heat in the form of a warm bath, hot towels, or heat packs.
- Use cold in the form of cold compresses, a cool mist shower, or an ice massage.
Working out might be the last thing on your list when you have stubborn joint pain. However, regular, gentle exercise can make a significant difference in your everyday comfort and mobility.
With the help of your healthcare team, you can plan a movement routine that strengthens your muscles, supports range of motion, boosts circulation, and keeps your body running optimally. Some popular types of exercise for those living with RA include:
- Stretching or yoga
The Takeaway on Massage for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Living with rheumatoid arthritis can be challenging, but the good news is that the gentle touch of massage could make a difference in your everyday life.
If you decide to try this natural therapy, remember to start with light pressure and stay mindful of your body’s response. And, of course, always be sure to check with your rheumatologist before adding it to your routine.
Once you’ve got the go-ahead, you can opt for hands-on self–massage, ask a partner, or schedule your first spa visit. Or, you can invest in a physician-trusted oscillating massager like those from MedMassager.