spinal cord injury

Massage for Spinal Cord Injury: Benefits and Safety Tips

Massage for Spinal Cord Injury: Benefits and Safety Tips

Spinal cord injury (SCI) is a serious, life-altering event caused by trauma or injury to the spine. An estimated 17,500 cases of SCI occur each year in the US — and for those impacted, many mental and physical hurdles can come with the recovery process.

Along the way, many SCI patients become curious about complementary therapies — like acupuncture, meditation, and massage therapy — to support the mind and body. But what kind of benefits can massage for spinal cord injury offer, and is it safe to try?

Surprisingly, massage may bring positive effects for many SCI patients — but whether it’s right for you will depend on your unique situation. Here are the benefits and safety tips to know before getting started.

Spinal Cord Injury Overview

Simply put, SCI occurs when the tissues and nerves around the spine become damaged. The most common causes of SCI are catastrophic falls and car accidents, but it can also happen as a result of sports injuries, surgeries, and other rarer situations. And for some, it can stem from conditions that affect spine health.

There are varying levels of SCI severity. For example, there are complete and incomplete injuries, which can affect how much movement and feeling is lost. 

Beyond that, the location of the injury will also impact which parts of the body are affected. But whenever the spine is damaged, it can result in changes to movement, sensations, and strength below the injury site. 

Spinal Cord Injury Treatments

While SCI can be life-changing, the good news is that treatments and assistive technologies are advancing every year. 

With that in mind, here are some of the most common steps that doctors recommend for patients in the recovery process:

Rehabilitation Therapy

Rehabilitation therapy is a core part of SCI recovery. Most patients going through SCI will work with a team of experienced professionals — including nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and psychologists — all under the guidance of an SCI physician.

The team will empower the patient to make as much progress as possible, both physically and mentally. In total, the therapy can last for several months of both inpatient and outpatient care.

Assistive Technologies

In addition to therapy, there are many assistive technologies designed to help enhance SCI patients’ quality of life. If you or someone you love suffers from an SCI, your healthcare team may recommend equipment to help with:

  • Movement
  • Eating and grooming
  • Using the bathroom
  • Environmental control (to help operate lights, appliances, etc.)
  • Transfer and positioning

Surgeries and Medications

The immediate treatment for SCI patients often includes surgery if there’s trauma to the spine or other areas of the body. In the longer term, doctors may recommend medications — such as NSAIDs, muscle relaxers, and more — to help manage pain and other symptoms.

Interest in Complementary Therapies

When in recovery from SCI, there’s no doubt that patients need lots of support from their medical team and loved ones. But beyond that, research has shown that many patients are also curious about trying natural tools to improve their well-being.

In one study from the journal Spinal Cord, researchers looked at the opinions on alternative medicine among SCI patients and health professionals. They found that those with SCI — along with their family and friends — showed a positive view and interest in trying alternative therapies. So, what kind of benefits can massage therapy offer?

What Are the Benefits of Massage Therapy?

Massage is a soothing, touch-based practice that’s incredibly popular among those with chronic health conditions. Some of its positive effects may include:

Reducing Pain

Because SCI patients rely on muscles above the injury site, they may notice pain in the neck, upper arms, or shoulders as time goes on. Fortunately, the gentle pressure of massage can help soothe many types of muscle aches.

One 2017 randomized controlled trial looked at the benefits of massage for spinal cord injury. The participants were split into two groups: one receiving upper body Swedish massage and the other trying guided imagery relaxation. Remarkably, both groups reported better pain levels and lower fatigue when the five weeks were up.

Curbs Stress

Support from family, friends, and care teams can help patients stay resilient and emotionally healthy after a spinal cord injury. But aside from that, self-care methods like massage can help curb everyday stress.

This is because a proper massage can help shift the body out of “fight-or-flight” mode and into “rest-and-digest” mode. In turn, it can lead to a slower heart rate, calmer breathing, and an overall sense of relaxation. 

Improves Mood and Mental Well-Being

In addition to relieving stress, a good massage can work as a powerful mood booster. This is especially true for touch-based massage from a therapist or loved one, which can help to bring a surge of feel-good endorphins to the body. 

These are hormones that your body releases in response to pleasant experiences, and they act as natural pain and stress relievers. As a result, just a few minutes of massage can be enough to bring a meaningful boost to one’s well-being.

Supports Muscle Health

As a whole, the healthy pressure of massage is a great way to support muscle health. The proper techniques can help:

  • Encourage healthy blood flow to bring more nutrients and oxygen to different areas
  • Break up stiffness and scar tissue, helping with comfort and range of motion
  • Relieve trigger points — aka irritable bands of muscle often found near the upper back and shoulder blades
  • Help soothe soreness after workouts or overuse

Can Complement Treatment for Certain Health Conditions

For some patients, massage may help manage the pain of other, more minor health conditions — like tendonitis, muscle spasms, or even tension headaches. In addition, people often find it soothing for ailments like:

  • Joint pain and arthritis
  • Mid-to-upper back pain 
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Insomnia
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Shoulder pain and stiffness
  • Neck pain

Support Range of Motion and Flexibility

For those dealing with stiff, achy joints — such as in the shoulders and arms — a good massage can help support flexibility and range of motion (ROM). 

In one 2017 meta-analysis, researchers looked at seven studies involving 237 participants to see how massage affected shoulder mobility. The participants were from all kinds of different backgrounds, including older adults and those with general shoulder pain.

Surprisingly, massage was found to be useful for boosting shoulder ROM — especially flexion and abduction. Sports massage made the biggest difference, using techniques like effleurage (gliding), petrissage (kneading), and friction.

Promotes Healthy Rest

Finally, massage is a simple, natural tool that can help support healthy sleep. It works because of all the benefits mentioned above — including pain relief, relaxation, boosting endorphins, and overall stress relief. 

So, how can you reap the benefits for yourself? As a start, you can try 10 minutes of a gentle, light-pressure massage from a loved one to shift your body into a deeper state of relaxation before bed. This may help lessen the time that it takes to fall asleep — and the next day, you might even wake up feeling more well-rested than usual.

Does Insurance Cover Professional Massage for Spinal Cord Injury?

Will insurance cover massage for spinal cord injury?” is a common question among SCI patients. 

In short, health insurance does sometimes cover massage. However, it depends on your specific coverage and whether or not it’s part of your doctor’s prescribed treatment plan.  

Sometimes, physical therapists will use a type of massage called “manual therapy” to manipulate muscle and scar tissue during appointments. In these cases, it would typically be covered under insurance, since it would technically be a part of the physical therapy session.

Overall, every insurance plan is different. So, it’s best to check with your provider and healthcare team to find out if it could be covered for you.

What Are the Best Types of Massage for SCI Patients?

When it comes to massage for spinal cord injury, not every modality will be right for every patient. For this reason, it can help to learn about the different massage styles out there (and what to expect from each).

Here are some types of massage therapy to know about, along with their uses and techniques:

Medical Massage

Medical (or therapeutic) massage is usually paired with a treatment plan to target specific health concerns. 

You won’t find this type of massage in a day spa. Instead, it’s offered by licensed massage therapists (LMTs) in some hospitals and clinics who work as part of larger care teams. These therapists typically have more advanced training, allowing them to safely and effectively work with patients in healthcare settings.

While the techniques may be similar to relaxation massage, medical massage therapists tend to do more focused work on the body’s soft tissue. They can help patients find relief from muscle strains, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other health issues.

Swedish Massage

Swedish massage is one of the most soothing types of massage out there — involving light, long strokes, gentle kneading, soothing vibration, and friction. The aim of Swedish massage is to:

  • Promote healthy blood flow
  • Alleviate muscle stiffness and tension
  • Support mobility 
  • Reduce aches and pains
  • Provide deep relaxation and stress relief

Overall, this modality is one of the gentlest, lowest-risk forms of massage to try. People use it for everything from low back pain to neck pain and other medical conditions. And for SCI patients, its light pressure can make it one of the safest options to talk to your doctor about.

Aromatherapy Massage

Aromatherapy massage can involve many different massage techniques. But the difference is that it involves adding essential oils — like rosemary, jasmine, or lavender — into the session. This can help bring extra benefits like:

  • A deeper sensation of calmness, relaxation, and peace
  • Relief from overall tension and muscle pain
  • A greater boost in mental well-being

Is Deep Tissue Massage Good for SCI Patients?

Deep tissue massage uses deep pressure to manipulate muscles, break up scar tissue, and support healing. However, it tends to be riskier than other types of massage. For this reason, it may not always be a good fit for patients with more serious conditions like spinal cord injuries.

Some of the potential risks include:

  • Increased risk of tissue tears or fractures
  • Pain after a session (if done incorrectly)
  • May dislodge blood clots
  • May aggravate old injuries (or cause new ones)

All in all, it’s best to work with your care team to determine which kinds of massage could be safe and beneficial for you.

Finding Your Massage Therapist: What To Look For

If you want to try massage for spinal cord injury, how can you know that the massage therapist you choose is a good fit? In short, keep an eye out for someone who:

  • Is licensed. In most areas, this will mean your therapist has had 500-1,000 hours of education and training.
  • Has advanced training. In particular, SCI patients can benefit from choosing a therapist who has specific training for their condition. It can be tough to find someone who fits the bill. But if you’re not sure where to look, asking your physician for a referral is always a great place to start.
  • Is compassionate. Those seeking massage will benefit from choosing someone who is patient, compassionate, and a good listener. So, if your first masseuse doesn’t end up having the qualities you’re looking for, don’t be afraid to try a different provider.

Massage Risks and Safety Tips

If you’re familiar with SCI, you may know that long-term complications can come up after the initial injury. And while massage is an overall safe and natural remedy, it may not always work for everyone.

With that being said, here are some contraindications and safety tips to keep in mind:

Contraindications of Massage

Because certain health conditions and medications can interact poorly with massage, there are times when you may need to check with an expert before getting started. 

Some situations to be mindful of include:

  • Blood clots. Those at a higher risk of blood clots should speak with their doctor before trying massage therapy.
  • Acute medical conditions such as fractures, muscle tears, or recent surgeries.
  • Medications. Many medications like blood thinners, pain relievers, and more may respond negatively to massage. Be sure to check with your doctor about any prescriptions you may be taking.
  • Cancer. If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, it’s important to get a green light from an oncologist before starting.
  • Infections and contagious conditions like a flu, cold, or bacterial infection.
  • Check with your doctor about any condition you may not be sure about.

Staying Safe Along the Way

Once you get the OK to try massage, here are some general safety tips to keep in mind before beginning your journey. 

  • Communicate openly. If anything feels uncomfortable or doesn’t seem right, be sure to let your massage therapist know. A good therapist will hear your concerns and tailor the session to make sure you feel comfortable.
  • Pay attention to your body’s sensations. What feels relaxing? What feels not-so-good? Whether you’re at a local massage clinic or working with a physical therapist, be mindful of your body’s responses to different pressure levels and touch.
  • Ask for tips from your healthcare team. Spinal cord injuries are complex medical conditions that can often come with secondary health concerns. By working directly with your SCI physician, you can make sure you take the proper steps to stay safe. 

The Bottom Line

Spinal cord injuries are serious, unexpected events that change the course of a person’s life. Overcoming and adapting to an SCI is one of the biggest challenges a person can face, and it calls for the support of loved ones, friends, and a rehabilitation team.

Throughout the recovery process, some patients may benefit from exploring natural therapies like massage. When done safely and correctly, the gentle touch of massage can break up pain, soothe tension, and promote better sleep. On top of that, it can improve mood, mental health, and overall stress levels.

If you want to try massage for spinal cord injury, be sure to check with your SCI physician first. With their guidance, you can get started with safe, soothing massage — whether that means working with an LMT or finding ways to include it into your daily care routine.

For Hands-Off Home Massage

For long-term massage in the comfort of your home, the restorative massage tools from MedMassager can help. 

Get started by picking up an FDA-certified tool like the MedMassager Body Massager or Foot Massager Plus today, or learn more about how they work here.

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