Many fibromyalgia symptoms—pain, stiffness, fatigue, depression—can be relieved with massage therapy. Now, researchers say they understand why. Massage alters the sleep pattern, which reduces levels of the chemical messenger for pain.
Fibromyalgia affects approximately 3-6 million people in the U.S., mostly women, according to lead author Tiffany Field, PhD, a researcher with the Touch Research Institutes in Miami. It causes widespread muscle and soft tissue pain, tenderness, and fatigue. A person with fibromyalgia will experience pain when “trigger points” are pressed.
Previous studies have shown that exercise, stretching, relaxation therapy, and massage therapy can provide relief for people with fibromyalgia. Massage therapy has also been shown to reduce pain, stiffness, fatigue, and sleeping difficulties. But researchers have not known exactly what massage does to provide relief.
In this five-week study, 20 adults with fibromyalgia received either massage therapy or relaxation therapy twice weekly. The massage was a combination of several types, including Swedish, Shiatsu, and Trager, all using moderate pressure. People in the other group went to progressive muscle relaxation sessions.
“Both groups showed a decrease in anxiety and depressed mood immediately after the first and last therapy sessions,” writes Field.
The big difference showed up in their sleep, she adds. Only the massage therapy group reported an increase in hours of sleep and a decrease in their sleep movements, as well as lower levels of the chemical messenger for pain—called “substance P.”