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Lyme disease is an infection transmitted by the bite from a deer tick. The bacterium, called borrelia burgdorferi, is carried by the bloodstream throughout the body – primarily to the nervous system and joint tissues. Discovered in 1982 by Willy Burgdorfer, borrelia burgdorferi produces flu-like symptoms including fever, chills, achiness, swollen glands and headache; deep nerve and joint pain and damage may eventually occur.

Diagnosis of Lyme disease is not always accurate, as the bacteria do not occur in high concentrations in any one area of the body, but live throughout the body. False negatives are common and – because the symptoms are similar to those of rheumatoid arthritis – many are misdiagnosed. Even after treatment with antibiotics, joint pain and arthritis-like symptoms may persist.

Since massage therapy has proven to be an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, anxiety and headaches – and these conditions have the same symptoms which occur with Lyme disease – it is believed to be an effective treatment for this tick-borne disease as well.

The Powassan virus is so much more virulent and quick acting than Lyme disease, and transmission is so much faster, that anyone suffering from this infection will experience symptoms much more quickly. Someone with Powassan will think they have the flu or some sort of respiratory condition within hours of transmission from the tick. These conditions are all contraindications for massage; thus there is much less likelihood of finding ourselves working on these clients until after their treatment has begun.

Clients with Lyme disease may be suffering from headaches, inflammation throughout their bodies, as well as neurological issues such as facial paralysis and neuropathy. Neuropathy symptoms may include an increase in pain, may involve numbness, or loss of sensation – making it difficult for clients to give us feedback while we are working.

5 Safe and Gentle Massage Techniques

Light to moderate work is best when working on clients with Lyme disease. The following modalities work well:

  1. Lymphatic drainage is a gentle technique used to manually stimulate the movement of lymph through the lymphatic nodes and pathways. Increasing the flow of the lymph increases the amount of toxic load that is removed and aids in the reduction of inflammation. While we should not do lymphatic drainage on a client taking antibiotics, it may help to detoxify the body afterward, causing a significant improvement in the function of the immune system.
  2. Swedish massage done with light to moderate pressure has been shown to reduce anxiety, improve sleep and reduce pain. In addition, the mechanical pumping action of massage increases circulation, which aids in reduction of inflammation, reduction in pain and increased oxygen to the muscle tissues throughout the body.
  3. Reflexology, which addresses the body by primarily working the hands and feet, has been shown to reduce anxiety and pain symptoms.
  4. Therapeutic Touch or Reiki, which addresses the energy systems of the body, is gentle and has been proven to reduce pain and stress levels.
  5. Cranial-sacral is another modality that may be used with Lyme patients. This modality uses a gentle approach to encourage balance in the cranial and spinal system. This modality helps support the nervous system.

Warning: This Massage Technique is NOT Safe

Due to the increased risk of and presence of inflammation, it is not wise to do deep tissue on anyone actively dealing with Lyme disease symptoms. While deep tissue techniques may release the muscle at the time of massage, there may be an increase in inflammation 12-36 hours later. This increase in inflammation may result in increased pain and suffering for the client.

Proper Tick Removal

There is some good news in dealing with Lyme disease – ticks are slow feeders and therefore it takes upwards of 24 hours for the tick to transmit Lyme disease once it has attached. And it can take up to 24 hours to attach. There is a window of opportunity, then, to find and remove ticks before it digs in.

Because of this small window of opportunity, we as massage therapists should keep tweezers in the office in case we find a tick on a client. If the tick is simply on the client, remove it and dispose of it. If, however, it has begun to dig in, we need to be much more careful:

  • Get permission from the client – they may want their physician to remove the tick, but with time of the essence they may prefer to have you remove it immediately. This is especially true of clients who live alone and cannot reach the location of the tick.
  • With fine tweezers, grab the head of the tick, right where it enters the skin and tug free without twisting or jerking it.
  • DO NOT GRAB THE BODY of the tick. Be sure to grab the head and mouth.
  • Clean the area with disinfectant after removal.
  • Do not try to burn the tick out or use petroleum jelly as this may cause it to dig in deeper or faster.
  • Keep the tick in a plastic bag in case your client’s physician wants it tested.

Working with clients who have Lyme disease requires constant attention to their needs. They may be suffering from a variety of symptoms that mimic rheumatoid arthritis and we need to be especially gentle in our work with them. Massage therapy, done gently, can reduce pain and anxiety and support the body as it fights this infection.

Editor’s Note: Find out how you can prevent getting bit by ticks, and learn about BioShield, an all natural bug repellent that’s safe for pets and children.