Massage Therapy Helps Osteoarthritis

Healthnotes Newswire (January 11, 2007)—Massage therapy might be a good prescription for people with osteoarthritis, a new study suggests.

The cartilage that cushions the joints is constantly wearing away due to everyday activities and being replaced through healthy repair mechanisms. But as we age, the repair process slows down and the joint cushion thins. The result is osteoarthritis, marked by joint pain, stiffness, and physical disability.

As many as 21 million people in the United States suffer from osteoarthritis, the most commonly reported chronic condition in elderly people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that osteoarthritis causes more physical disability than lung disease, heart disease, and diabetes, and annual costs associated with osteoarthritis are estimated at $60 billion.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are typically prescribed to relieve the symptoms of osteoarthritis, but this family of drugs can cause dangerous side effects including gastritis, gastric ulcers, and liver and kidney problems.

Few treatment options address the causes of osteoarthritis; they generally don’t slow the wearing away of cartilage nor stimulate cartilage repair. Some studies have found that antioxidants might slow cartilage loss, and glucosamine sulfate can stimulate cartilage repair.

A new study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, looked at massage therapy as a treatment for osteoarthritis of the knee. Massage therapy relaxes the muscles that support joints, increases circulation, and promotes lymph drainage. These effects could benefit arthritic joints by easing stiffness and pain, and possibly enhancing cartilage repair.

Half of the study’s 68 participants received a one-hour full-body massage twice per week for the first four weeks and once per week for the second four weeks, then no massage for eight weeks. The other half had no massage in the first eight weeks, followed by eight weeks of massage therapy.

The first massage group saw improvements in pain, stiffness, and physical function after their massage therapy period while the group that was not receiving massage therapy did not. These improvements were largely unchanged eight weeks after their last massage. The second group saw similar improvements during their massage therapy period.

“People with arthritis have very few good options, especially now that some commonly prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs have been found to cause serious cardiac problems,” commented Louise Tolzmann, a naturopathic doctor in Portland, Oregon. “Given its very high safety profile and apparent effectiveness, massage therapy should be offered as a treatment option to people with osteoarthritis.”

(Arch Intern Med 2006;166:2533–8)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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