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Also known as degenerative arthritis, osteoarthritis occurs more frequently as we age. With aging, the water content of cartilage increases and the protein makeup of cartilage degenerates. Over the years, repetitive use of the joints irritates and inflames the cartilage, eventually eroding it away. In advanced cases, there is a total loss of the cartilage cushion between bones, causing friction that leads to pain, inflammation and joint mobility limitations.
Osteoarthritis can occur within any joint, but most often affects the hands and weight-bearing joints such as the knee, hip and spine. While the severity can vary widely, typical symptoms of osteoarthritis include:
- Joint pain following repetitive use of the joint
- Joint pain that worsens later in the day
- Swelling of the affected joint
- Warmth or redness of the affected joint
- Joint creaking
- Pain and stiffness after extended periods of inactivity
- Persistent OR intermittent pain
- Development of painful bony spurs at joint locations
There is no magic pill or surgical intervention that offers a risk-free, reliable solution to cartilage degeneration and repair to the damage done by osteoarthritis. The goal of treating osteoarthritis is to reduce joint pain and inflammation while improving and maintaining joint function. Treatment for degenerative arthritis typically consists of:
- Weight reduction to minimize the weight-bearing responsibility on arthritic joints
- Avoiding activities exerting excessive stress on the affected joint cartilage to relieve pain and swelling
- Physical and occupational therapy to strengthen surrounding muscles, increase joint motion, and devise innovative plans for daily functioning
- Wearing mechanical support devices to reduce joint stress
- Medications administered orally, topically or via injection to decrease joint inflammation and pain
- A last resort, surgery may be performed to repair cartilage tears (arthroscopy), remove bone for realigning deformity (osteotomy), fuse degenerated joints together (arthrodesis), or replace a degenerated joint with an artificial joint (arthroplasty)
While medications or surgery may seem like ideal solutions for osteoarthritis pain, many people who have tried these options report otherwise. Medications for arthritic pain generally fall into the following categories: anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants and steroids. These drugs demonstrate three primary drawbacks – they have limited effectiveness, have a wide range of side effects, and may create dependence and tolerance, requiring progressively higher dosages for relief. Invasive surgery can also be problematic, either by not fixing the problem, causing more problems or offering only temporary relief.
Bodyworkers aim to relieve arthritic pain by increasing blood circulation to the affected area. Since there is a relatively poor network of vasculature in cartilage, an increase in local circulation brings fresh, oxygenated blood to an injured area and ushers out waste. In addition to reducing inflammation and pain, improving local circulation increases joint mobility. It is no surprise that bodywork is an ideal match for a person suffering with osteoarthritis.
Researchers from Yale Prevention Research Center and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey recently concluded that massage therapy is a safe and effective way to reduce pain and improve function in adults with osteoarthritis of the knee. Their 16-week study set out to identify the potential benefits of Swedish massage on osteoarthritis patients with pain, stiffness and limited range of motion. Participants in the trial’s massage intervention group received a standard one-hour Swedish massage twice a week for four weeks, followed by Swedish massage once a week for the next four weeks. After the first eight weeks of massage therapy, participants had improved flexibility, experienced less pain and improved range of motion. When reassessed eight weeks after completion of the massage intervention, the benefits of massage remained significant, although the magnitude of effect was somewhat reduced. “Massage is free of any known side effects and according to our results, clearly shows therapeutic promise,” said senior investigator of the study David L. Katz, M.D., associate adjunct professor in the Department of Epidemiology & Public Health at Yale School of Medicine and director of Yale’s Prevention Research Center.
Balneotherapy is a therapeutic approach to health involving bathing. Inclusive of many bathing mediums, including hot or cold water baths, massage in water, vapor baths, bathing in water enriched with a variety of minerals, mud baths and other applications, balneotherapy is becoming increasingly popular in spas. Researchers at the Institute of Rheumatology at the University of Siena, in Siena, Italy, the Section of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of L’Aquila, in L’Aquila, Italy, and the Section of Clinical Hydrology at the University of Milan, in Milan, Italy found that two weeks of mineral baths and mud-pack applications per year, two years in a row, significantly improved symptoms of osteoarthritis and reduced the amount of hospital stays, missed workdays and necessary medication associated with this disease. Researchers from the Asaf-Harofe Medical Center, in Zerifin, Israel, and the Tel Aviv University Sackler Faculty of Medicine, in Tel Aviv, Israel reported similar results. Following a study of 72 subjects with osteoarthritis of the knee, Israeli clinicians concluded that soaking in hot mineral pools once a week significantly improved the symptoms of osteoarthritis and reduced the amount of medication taken by people with this condition.
While treating one of the 20 million Americans with osteoarthritis with Western medicine may be a daunting task, there is tremendous promise in approaching this condition with massage and spa therapy. The three reputable studies referenced above leave no doubt that invigorating circulation with Swedish massage and balneotherapy can help a person with osteoarthritis. As more clinical trials demonstrate alternative medicine’s effect on joint health, an increasing number of physicians will recommend and prescribe bodyworkers’ services for their patients’ recovery.
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