Currently there is no cure for fibromyalgia. So health care professionals do their best to find ways to mitigate pain, manage pain, and improve quality of life for people with fibromyalgia.
One way that we do this is by sending fibromyalgia sufferers to massage therapists. Massage therapy has been shown to improve the quality of life for fibromyalgia patients. Improved quality of life is vague so let’s get a little most specific. One study showed that people suffering from fibromyalgia had a 37% decrease in pain after getting a series of massage treatments.1 Fibromyalgia patient’s pain index reduced slowly over the course of the treatments but even after stopping treatment for six months fibromyalgia sufferers were still better than they had been before receiving treatment.1 While this study indicates that it is better to continue care because the pain relief does fade with time, getting some massage is better than not getting any. This study also showed that those that did receive massage had decreased depression and took fewer analgesics (medication used to decrease pain).
Another study looked at other factors thought to be associated with fibromyalgia syndrome. This study found that those that received massage had decreased levels of cortisol after their massage.2 Cortisol is a steroid hormone that our body produces in response to stress. Cortisol has many functions but one interesting one in the context of fibromyalgia is that cortisol suppresses our immune response. In other words, those with high levels of cortisol for long periods of time are more prone to illness (colds, flues, etc…). Another study measured sleep (hours slept and movement during sleep) and substance P (a peptide which our body uses as a neurotransmitter and a neuromodulator) concentration as a marker for the effectiveness of massage on those suffering from fibromyalgia.3 They found that those who got the massage instead of the relaxation therapy reported more hours of sleep and decreased movement during sleep (more restful sleep).3 Those that received massage also had decreased substance P levels.3 It is a ubiquitous peptide, meaning that it is found throughout the body. Our bodies use substance P for many different functions but the reason why it is used as a marker for fibromyalgia is because substance P is thought to be involved in neurogenic inflammation (an inflammatory process initiated by the nervous system) and because it is thought to be responsible for communicating information about pain between our tissues and our brain. The study looking at substance P levels also measured patient’s anxiety and depression. They found anxiety and depression were decreased with massage therapy and with relaxation therapy.3
Massage therapy can help people with fibromyalgia by:
- decreasing amount of pain experienced,1,2,3
- increasing sleep,2,3
- decrease movement while sleeping,3
- decreasing need for analgesic medication,1
- decreasing cortisol levels,2
- decreasing substance P levels, and by 3
- decreasing anxiety and depression. 3
- Brattberg, Gunilla. “Connective tissue massage in the treatment of fibromyalgia.” European Journal of Pain 3(1999): 235-244.
- Sunshine, William; et al. “Fibromyalgia benefits from massage therapy and transcutaneous electrical stimulation.” Journal of Clinical Rheumatology: Practical Reports on Rheumatic & Musculoskeletal Diseases1(1996): 18-22.
- Field, Tiffany; et al. “Fibromyalgia Pain and Substance P Decrease and Sleep Improves After Massage Therapy.” Journal of Clinical Rheumatology: Practical Reports on Rheumatic & Musculoskeletal Diseases2 (2002): 72-76.