Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a chronic disease affecting the central nervous system. People with MS can have fatigue, muscle pain or weakness and difficulty with motion. There is no cure, but researchers are studying massage techniques to see if MS patients can find relief.

Shavonne Thurman was in her twenties when numbness in her abdomen and double vision sent her to the doctor. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis which has slowly progressed.

She says, “It comes, it goes, you never know.  You just wake up and it’s like, today my legs don’t want to work.” Shavonne is taking part in a clinical trial testing the effects of massage on MS patients.

Christina Manella, PT, Massage Therapist at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia says, “in MS in particular, the myelin around your nerves is affected. So it sets up a feedback loop that makes your muscles tighten that’s not under your control.”

For this study, therapists are using Swedish massage techniques which are long, even strokes that are easy to reproduce. Twenty-five patients will receive therapy once a week for six weeks.

Researchers want to measure the impact of massage on spasticity, which is involuntary muscle tightness. “How long you feel the effect is going to be different for each person,” Manella says.
Deborah Backus, PT, PhD, Director of Multiple Sclerosis Research at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia also wants to know if massage helps patients manage the stress of having a chronic disease.

She says, “with MS it’s been shown that the fatigue and the pain is closely related with depression and psychological stress, which really impacts the quality of life.”

Shavonne says, “the massages helped to relax and clear my body so I wasn’t stressed for the rest of the day.”

Researchers at the Shepherd Center say there has been little prior research evaluating the use of massage therapy in MS, although the benefits of massage on patients with other diseases like chronic fatigue syndrome have been established.

Many health insurance plans do not cover massage for MS or other chronic diseases, but researchers hope study results will help change that.