Fibromyalgia (FM) affects more than 3 million people every year. This chronic condition causes widespread muscle pain and increased sensitivity to stimuli that often lead to pain and difficulty sleeping, among other symptoms. Treatment is varied, but some of the current research indicates that massage therapy can be effective in helping to relieve some of the discomfort.
But FM is a complex disorder, and so working with clients who have FM is no different than working with clients with other chronic or pre-existing health conditions: you need to have a better-than-average understanding of how the condition affects the client, as well as when massage therapy can be helpful. Following, you will find information on what recent research is saying about FM and the role massage therapy can play in helping people better deal with some of the symptoms.
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread muscle pain and tenderness. Other common symptoms associated with FM include fatigue, tension headaches, cognitive difficulties and irritable bowel syndrome.
Interestingly, more of the research on FM is starting to suggest that the condition is actually a central nervous system disorder, even though muscle pain is one of its primary symptoms. More specifically, evidence points to the idea that FM is a disorder of central nervous system pain processing pathways instead of a primary auto-immune disorder of the peripheral tissue, as once believed.1 “There were studies that showed the association between stressors and FM,” explains Stephen Perle, Professor of Clinical Sciences at Bridgeport University. “For example, fMRI has shown that people with FM, when exposed to non-painful stimuli, have activation of the brain in areas that are normally activated only by painful stimuli.”
Accordingly, central nervous system involvement may explain why people with FM are often hypersensitive to all sorts of stimuli, not just mechanical pressure or touch. Dr. Michael Schneider, Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of multiple studies on FM, provides more insight: “The classic fibromyalgia patient just isn’t tender to the touch and can’t submit to mechanical pressure,” he explains. “They’re sensitive to light, sound, multiple food allergies, multiple chemical sensitivities, and they don’t tolerate heat and cold real well.”
Who Develops Fibromyalgia?
The short answer to this question is that women are much more likely than men to develop fibromyalgia—but it is more complicated than that. The likelihood that someone will develop FM isn’t well-known, but there are two variables that seem to be related: genetics and personal trauma. Genetics is fairly straightforward. FM tends to run in families.
Trauma, however, is a bit more complex. There seems to be a link between FM and post-traumatic stress disorder, though one does not necessarily cause the other. A 2001 study of 600 participants with FM showed “an extremely high prevalence of past emotional, physical and/or sexual trauma associated with the onset of FM symptoms.”2 Schneider’s review of the FM research literature suggests that the connection between personal trauma and FM may be that trauma often causes a person’s limbic system to go into overdrive, contributing to the central nervous system hypersensitivity. Remember, not everyone with FM is going to have experienced trauma, but you should keep the possibility in mind when working with clients with this condition. “There’s a high association with trauma, and people need to be aware of that when they’re treating these patients,” says Schneider.
Treatment for Fibromyalgia
There is no one pill or treatment that cures fibromyalgia or even relieves all of the symptoms, so many people with FM deal with this condition using multiple approaches. Most will likely be taking medication prescribed by their primary care physician, so be sure you do a thorough intake and understand how any medication they are taking may affect the massage therapy session. Remember that for these clients, self-care is crucial to being able to better control the major symptoms of FM. Therefore, focus on how massage therapy can help them reduce stress, for example, or get better sleep.
Along with massage therapy, these clients may be using other complementary approaches, such as acupuncture and yoga. When combined, Schneider sees real benefit from both traditional and complementary treatment. “These patients are best treated with a team approach,” he says.
Massage Therapy and Fibromyalgia
Of all the alternative therapies available, more and more research is showing that massage therapy provides real benefits to people dealing with a number of health conditions, including fibromyalgia. A study in 2011 showed that massage therapy caused reductions in sensitivity to pain at tender points in patients with FM, as well as lowering anxiety levels and increasing quality of sleep. Another study from 2014, which systematically reviewed nine other studies about massage therapy and FM, found that massage therapy had immediate beneficial effects on improving pain, anxiety and depression in patients with FM.
According to this same study, massage therapy is particularly effective when it is administered to soft and connective tissues because this improves muscle flexibility, as well as modulating local blood and lymph circulation.4
There is not one specific technique that is more effective with FM than others, although myofascial release has been shown to be somewhat helpful. “To new massage therapists who would like to work with FM clients, I would tell them to fill their proverbial tool box with as many techniques as they can,” says Joseph Swinski, a massage therapist from Rhode Island who regularly works with clients with chronic conditions such as FM. “When working with the FM population, it is not one size fits all.”
For many clients, using the right amount of pressure is going to be imperative, so it is important to clearly communicate with the client both before and during the session and adjust when necessary. Remember that deep pressure will likely be too much for these clients. “If they’re hypersensitive, then the idea is you’re going to have to go really light with them and kind of coddle that client and be a little more gentle with them,” says Schneider. This idea holds true for all aspects of the massage session. “Speak in a lower voice to them, and that person’s going to like the dim room with some nice relaxing music,” he adds.
Flexibility is also a key ingredient to success when working with people with FM. “The most important thing I could hope to impress on a new massage therapist working with a client with FM is to be patient, not in a hurry and as observant as possible during the actual session,” says Erika Crisafulli, a massage therapist with the Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth. “Be compassionate. We all know what it is like to deal with physical ailments that we cannot get a hold of on our own.” Crisafulli knows this better than most, as she herself has had to deal with symptoms of FM. “Trying to control the symptoms so you can still live a full life is challenging, but not impossible if you are willing to help yourself,” she says. “It is so important to practice what you preach. If I don’t take care of myself, how in the world can I take care of my clients, something I love to do so much?”
Checking in with a client after a massage therapy session is also a good idea, and that sometimes means following up a few days later. “You may need to change your approach to massage after the first visit,” says Swinski. “This is why I contact my clients after the massage. If the results were not what we expected, I reassure them that there are other approaches that we could take in their next visit.” Again, you need to be aware that clients with FM are going to have different needs. What works for some may not work for others, so listen and be willing to adjust the massage therapy session when appropriate.
Although FM is a complex condition, research is showing there are a variety of ways massage therapy can help clients feel better. From better sleep to reduced stress, massage therapy is showing real promise in helping people better handle the symptoms of FM.