Deep Tissue Massage Treatment for Fibromyalgia

People affected or suffering from Fibromyalgia frequently have symptoms such as muscle pains, joint stiffness and fatigue. These can also cause mood, sleep and memory problems. Deep tissue massage helps to alleviate the pain and improve the symptoms of the disease. It also helps to increase muscle flexibility and blood circulation and decrease stress hormone levels and anxiety.  

Because of the physical sensitivity of people with Fibromyalgia, it is important to find a practitioner who is familiar with the condition and who can adapt their treatments appropriately.  One study into the effects of massage for Fibromyalgia showed that immediately after treatment and at one month afterwards; anxiety levels, quality of sleep, pain, and quality of life were improved in the experimental group over the placebo group. However, at six months after the treatment, there were only significant differences in the quality of sleep index.  This may imply that massage therapy is needed on an ongoing basis for people with Fibromyalgia.

What You Can Do Right Now

How to Select a Good Deep Tissue Massage Therapist

Make sure that you ask the massage therapist whether they have treated people with Fibromyalgia in the past.  It is also useful to ensure that they are aware of the physical sensitivities that are common to Fibromyalgia and that they know what changes they may need to make, or what they may need to be aware of when doing massage for someone with Fibromyalgia.  While some types of massage can cause short term pain for later relaxation, this is probably not a good idea if you have Fibromyalgia.  

During a flare up, you probably want to avoid deep tissue massage as well as any type of massage involving vigorous strokes or deep pressure can cause rebound tenderness, exacerbating pain. Prior to, and during flare-ups, certain areas may be too tender for deep work, and can result in further tensing of the involved muscles. Respected fibromyalgia researcher, Devin J. Starlanyl, MD, recommends avoiding deep tissue massage or neuromuscular therapy during these times.

History of Deep Tissue Massage

The formal history of deep tissue massage dates from the mid 1800s when the technique was first developed by Canadian physicians.  The first deep tissue massage clinic was opened in 1949 by a Canadian doctor named Therese Phimmer.  In 1970, she published The first book about deep tissue massage (including the first formal guidelines on how to practice it); her book was called 'Muscles - Your Invisible Bonds'.  Since then, deep tissue massage has been adopted by a variety of practitioners from physiotherapists to massage therapists to those working in sports medicine and physical therapy.

The roots of deep tissue massage, however, naturally begin earlier in time.  People from the far East as well as ancient Greeks and Egyptians all used deep tissue massage.  Swedish massage was also developed from those same roots.

Theory behind Fibromyalgia Treatment using Deep Tissue Massage

According to John Cartmell, LMP (a massage therapist who specializes in soft-tissue abnormalities and many of whose clients have had fibromyalgia), "One of the more effective massage techniques for myofascial problems is deep-tissue massage; a vigorous type of massage used to loosen areas of hardened or inflexible muscles and associated tissues. Deep-tissue massage improves some of the symptoms of fibromyalgia and MPS, but the effects are generally temporary and maintenance treatments are usually needed indefinitely."

The power of deep tissue massage appears to be in its ability to get the blood flowing and reduce blockages and knots that are painful.  However, deep tissue massage is contra indicated during a period of flare-ups and you do want to be very careful that the massage therapist has experience with people with Fibromyalgia.

Research of Fibromyalgia Treatment using Deep Tissue Massage

Deep tissue massage is also called myofascial massage.  Some studies have shown benefits (at least in the short term) while other studies show more mixed results.

Benefits of massage-myofascial release therapy on pain, anxiety, quality of sleep, depression, and quality of life in patients with fibromyalgia

Summary:  The purpose of this study was to determine whether massage-myofascial release therapy can improve pain, anxiety, quality of sleep, depression, and quality of life in patients with fibromyalgia.  It was done as a randomized controlled clinical trial where 74 people with fibromyalgia were randomly assigned to massage-myofascial release therapy or to a sham treatment for a period of 2 weeks.  Pain, anxiety, quality of sleep, depression, and quality of life were determined at when the study began, after the last treatment session, and at 1 month and 6 month periods after the end of the treatment.  Immediately after treatment and at 1 month, anxiety levels, quality of sleep, pain, and quality of life were improved in the group that received massage-myofascial therapy compared with the control group.  Six months later, there were only significant differences in the quality of sleep index. The study concludes that "myofascial release techniques improved pain and quality of life in patients with fibromyalgia."


Equivocal Support for Analgesic Effects in Fibromyalgia

Summary: This review looked at four different studies done related to the effects of massage therapy on fibromyalgia.  In one study, the group receiving massage therapy reported less pain, stiffness, fatigue and difficulty sleeping (as assessed via interviews), as well as improvements in dolorimeter test value and physician's assessment of clinical condition.  Another study examined compared the results of massage therapy versus progressive muscle relaxation for people with fibromyalgia. Both groups reported reductions in anxiety and depression immediately following treatment on the first and last days. By the end of treatment, the massage group evidenced significant reductions in self- and physician-assessed pain and symptoms, as well as reductions in the number of tender points and substance P levels.  A third study compared assigned people with fibromyalgia to groups that received either massage therapy or no treatment. Comparisons immediately after the treatments showed greater improvements in pain, depression and quality of life in the massage group relative to controls, but no differences in disability, sleep disturbance or anxiety.   30% of the improvement in pain had disappeared by the 3-month follow-up and 90% of the reduction in pain was gone by the the 6 month follow-up. The last study examined assigned 37 people with fibromyalgia to one of three conditions: massage, usual care, usual care with follow-up phone calls from a nurse.   However, only 16 patients completed the study and although the massage group showed a trend towards greater improvement in pain and self-efficacy for managing their condition, there were no between-group differences by the end of treatment likely due to the small sample sizes.  The conclusion of this review was that unfortunately the quality of the trials was poor, and that the positive effects did not appear to last.  While the researchers drew the conclusion that massage for Fibromyalgia could therefore not be recommended, for people suffering from the pain of Fibromyalgia and accepting of the benefits of even short term relief, this study does provide food for thought.


Stories of Fibromyalgia Treatment using Deep Tissue Massage

While deep tissue massage may seem counter intuitive for fibromyalgia, there are anecdotes about people who have found it to be very effective.  One person credits deep tissue massage with preventing her from being disabled by her stiffness and pain.  Others say that deep tissue massage does indeed give relief because it stops the muscles from tightening or seizing up.  Yet another person said that for her deep tissue massage was beneficial because it 'gets at those muscles and pulls them straight, gets the blood flowing and yes it does hurt like all heck, but later is so worth it".  And another person echoed that deep tissue massage is painful, but she uses it to release trigger points and says that she feels much better when those are loose. "When I have them in my ribcage and between my shoulders it is hard for me to breathe" so breaking the knots is helpful.

Questions and Comments about Deep Tissue Massage for Fibromyalgia

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Sabrina Costain 2017-07-11 10:42
We have a few patients that come in for a massage that have Fibro, each one is different some prefer deep tissue and some just like theraputic . Great article

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