A Beginner’s Guide to Rub-Downs

Classical Thai Massage

Classical Thai Massage c/o taraangkorhotel @ Flickr

We all know having lupus sucks (I say it so much I just might make that the new blog title). The illness itself can knock you for a endless loop and the current standards of treatment can be just as brutal. This often drives many patients to seek out alternative therapies that they hope will banish symptoms without all the bone-breaking, waistline-busting and sleep-stopping side effects of regular meds. While there are tons of “treatments” that claim to stop pain and even cure lupus, a very, very few have had any kind of research done to prove their effectiveness – or safety. Of the treatments that do have some scientific cred, my absolute favorite and highest recommended is massage. I’ve been using massage to help manage my chronic pain for several years. If you’re looking into trying massage for yourself, the guide below might help you decide what kind of massage might be right for you.

What is massage?

Basically massage is the manipulation of the body’s soft tissue for whatever reason. Now I say “whatever reason” because some massages aim only for relaxation while others aim to release pain in specific areas or increase mobility, circulation, etc. Used for ages, it could be argued that massage was the first medical treatment created by mankind. Researchers have given massage the green light as being helpful for all kinds of painful conditions such as osteoarthritis, fibromalyia, and injuries, just to name a few. And while there are potential hazards (always check with your doctors first), massage is still a pretty safe option when compared to many of the medical alternatives for pain relief.

My experience has mostly been with two main classes of massage: medical massage and “spa” massage.

Medical Massage Therapy:

This is often just called “massage therapy”. If you’ve ever be prescribed physical therapy, you might have seen it done or have had it done yourself. More and more insurances are covering it as an accepted medical treatment. This isn’t leisure time however; the aim of medical massage is to work out knots of tension in the body that can cause or contribute to pain. And, in my experience, those knots are worked out with force. Often the massage can involve intense pressure at a vigorous pace. It can be painful, but more often than not, I’ve left those sessions feeling loose and languid. Different styles of massage can be used for therapy, but the one I’ve seen most often is Swedish style massage.

“Spa” massage:

Heavy Massage

You can get a massage anywhere. Photo c/o w00kie @ Flickr

These are the types of massages that are offered at day spas, street fairs and resorts. Often they come with fancy add-ons such as heated stones (or bamboo sticks as I tried for one birthday), salt scrubs and exotic-sounding massage styles. While pricey and, yes, kinda frivolous, spa-type massages work on levels that medical massages skip, making them more relaxing and enjoyable. For starters, the environment is tailored for relaxation, including soothing music, scents and visuals. I’ve often found that the temperature is often higher in spas than in medical settings, which helps you (and your muscles) relax and drowse off more easily. The massage techniques are often whole-body and geared solely for relaxation – meaning less intense pressure and less digging into your sore spots. These can be real treats, but the price adds up quickly and often spas aren’t covered by your insurance. But these can be great intros to massage, if you way an enjoyable way to dip your toe in.

Mechanical massage:

Though this isn’t exactly an official “type” of massage, with so many massage products on the market (and four in my house), it’d be silly not to mention it. For people who aren’t interested in conventional massage for whatever reason, getting a massager and using it at home is the most logical alternative. There’s a vast variety to choose from: full-body massagers that drape over chairs or are built into chairs, smaller ones that are built to target specific areas of the body or hand-held ones that can be used anywhere you need them. The downside of these are that they often are limited to a pre-programmed set of motions, intensities or massage types (such as vibrating massagers vs. ‘tapping’ or ‘kneading’ ones), so they can’t conform to your body’s immediate needs like a person can. They are also pretty costly, but when compared to the cost of ongoing treatments, you might find one up-front cost justified. The benefits include having a masseuse on hand (or in hand) anytime of day or night, without the hassle of setting appointments or commuting. You also have complete control over how the massage is done – and you don’t have to worry about removing your clothing in front of a stranger.

I have four massagers at home – each uses a different type of massage and works best with a different part of my body. It’ll take trial-and-error to find the device (or devices) that work for you. I recommend going to a store where there are floor models you can try (Bed Bath and Beyond is one that I know of). Don’t rush and try all the settings. If even the lowest setting is too hard on your muscles, consider putting a folded towel over the area to muffle the intensity.


Common concerns

Despite the many good reasons to try massage, some people avoid it simply because they don’t know what to expect. Below are just a couple of common worries that crop up for massage newbies. If you have any other questions, ask them in the comments below.

Le massage, scène de hammam (musée des Augustins, Toulouse)

Le massage, scène de hammam (musée des Augustins, Toulouse)

I have to take off what?!  One common conception is that you have to get naked for a massage, which freaks a lot of people out. It really depends on the type of massage you’re having done and how the facility is run. Most medical massages I’ve had don’t require any clothes to be removed, while nearly all of the “spa” type ones almost always require going au natural. If you’re going to get a massage for the first time, or trying a new place, this is one of the first questions to ask. Most facilities are flexible if you’re truly shy about shedding clothing. Since most masseuses use oil or lotion to reduce friction while working (remember Indian burns? Yeah, those.) and those can stain clothing, if you do wear something, stick to clothing that you won’t mind getting messy. And ladies, seriously ditch the bra. It’s the only item of clothing that I’ve found really has a negative impact on the quality of a massage.

What if I fart? Okay, don’t tell me that you haven’t worried about this once or twice. Basically, we’re all human. Yeah, if some bodily function or other gets out of hand, it’ll be embarrassing, but even a massage school student will be professional enough to let it pass without a word. If you’re really paranoid about your body, then shower, use the bathroom, etc all before your appointment. For the record, most sessions last between 30 and 60 minutes long.

Is it painful?  Medical massages can be more painful since they’re aiming to really manipulate the muscles and work out knots, but any kind of massage can painful. Tense muscles wind up like rocks that a massage wears away into clay – and rocks can take a lot of tweaking before they loosen up. Luckily, a masseuse usually moves quickly, not staying on any location more than a few seconds, so if they do hit a sore spot, try to breathe through it. If the pain is so intense that it becomes hard to breathe, then simply ask the masseuse to be more gentle. If you have any spots that are chronically more sore than others, tell them this up front to avoid uncomfortable shocks to the system later. Believe me though, the rewards are worth any momentary pain.

How much is this going to cost me?  More and more, massage is gaining acceptance as a respectable practice – which means more and more insurances are covering it. Check your insurance to see what they charge. If you don’t have insurance, or they don’t cover massage, then you can always look for a masseuse that works on a sliding scale. Schools are also a good place to look – graduating students have to clock a number of hands-on hours in order to get their licence. And of course, you can always buy massage devices online or in stores to use at home.

Further Reading

Here’s what the American Massage Therapy Association says about massage and lupus

An article from the Arthritis Foundation about the benefits of massage

The Mayo Clinic’s breakdown on massage

The SLE Lupus Foundation’s online massage resources

Is massage a part of your lupus coping kit? Tell us about it in the comments!

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