How Massage Can Help Rheumatoid Arthritis

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a systemic illness that affects many parts of the body. It is perhaps most well-known for causing joint pain as inflammation attacks cartilage and bone, which has the potential to create damage.

People who have RA often use a variety of techniques and tools to deal with their pain, including medication, heat and ice, rest, and more. But they may be wary of massage, worried that it will cause more pain than it relieves. Let’s take a look at RA and massage.

Ancient massage drawing.

What is massage?

Massage therapy is used to relieve discomfort and pain originating in stress, overuse, and chronic-pain conditions. It offers relief by manipulating muscles, tendons, joints, and other soft tissue. Massage therapy has been around for thousands of years — the first mentions were seen around 2700 B.C. in China and Egypt, and later from India in the Ayurvedic tradition. In the early 1800s, a Swedish doctor developed techniques that form the basis of Swedish massage.

Cubes, adding people concept.

The use of massage therapy is increasing

More and more people are having massages on a regular basis. Surveys have indicated that up to 59.5 million adults in the United States have had a massage at least once, and 43 percent of these sought out a massage therapist for a health or medical reasons, including managing pain. There are close to 400,000 massage therapists and massage school students. Almost a quarter of these work in a healthcare setting, where massage is used to manage pain, facilitate healing, and in physical therapy.

Woman holds her sore wrist from RA hand pain.

Massage and RA

Massage can help reduce pain and improve function for people with RA. Studies have shown that regular massage and self-massage can lead to a decrease in pain, as well as improved grip strength, range of motion, and general joint function. The combination of massage and other treatments prescribed by your doctor may also be beneficial to the systemic aspects of RA. As well, the pleasurable sensations associated with this treatment may help you feel more positive toward your body.

Doctor holding clipboard saying safety first.

Massage cautions with RA

There are some cautions, however. Massage should not be used for flaring or damaged joints and you should check with your doctor about any other cautions before booking a massage. For instance, massage may not be recommended for your neck if you have active RA or damage in the neck joint. If you experience a lot of pain, it may be important to use a lighter touch than is otherwise customary for certain types of massage.

Word massage written on beach next to a shell and waves.

Types of massage

There are many different types of massage. Some of the more common ones include deep tissue, in which a massage therapist uses intense pressure, which may be too much for some people with RA. Myofascial release is a method that stretches and releases connective tissues, Swedish massage can be very relaxing, and Shiatsu works from the same principal as acupuncture, but without the needles. Which type of massage works best for you depends on your needs, but Swedish or Shiatsu may be a good place to start.

Woman getting a massage.

Swedish massage

Swedish massage is one of the most popular types of treatment. It may be used to relax the entire body and typically uses long, gliding strokes that move in the same direction as when blood returns to the heart. The aim of Swedish massage is to reduce stiffness and pain in joints and muscles, improve circulation and flexibility, reduce anxiety, and release toxins.

Man getting a shiatsu massage.

Shiatsu massage

Shiatsu is another popular type of massage and is based in Eastern tradition. Like acupuncture, the aim of shiatsu is to release blockages in the body to allow qi (healthy energy) to flow freely. This type of massage can be especially helpful during RA flares, when other kinds of massage, such as Swedish and deep tissue, may not be recommended.

Finding a massage therapist in a city using technology concept.

Finding a massage therapist

Because of the unique needs associated with your RA, make sure you find an experienced massage therapist. Ask your medical team for referrals, talk to a physical therapist, or do a search on the American Massage Therapy Association website. Make sure you have a thorough discussion with the massage therapist before treatment to make sure that they are aware of what they need to do and not do with RA. This discussion should also include details about your medical history and current condition.

Woman getting a massage in a massage chair.

What to expect during a massage

After the discussion of your medical condition and goals for massage, you will likely be asked to lie down in a comfortable position. The massage therapist will touch you with specific movements based on the type of massage you are getting. It is normal to become very relaxed, even to fall asleep. If something hurts, make sure to tell the therapist. Massage is supposed to make you feel better, not make the pain worse. That said, there may be an element of the “hurts-so-good” type of pain to a massage.

Woman getting a massage.

Do I have to get naked?

Some types of massage, such as Swedish, use oils to facilitate movement of the therapist’s hands on your skin and may therefore require you to become at least partially undressed. Others, like shiatsu, can be done over your clothes. A massage therapist is a professional and will do their best to make you comfortable.

Woman taking money from wallet.

The financial side

Massage therapy does involve a cost. On average, a one-hour massage costs $60, but varies by region, setting, and the level of training the therapist has. Your insurance may cover massage therapy if prescribed by a doctor. Other types of treatments that are covered by insurance, such as physical therapy, may include massage as part of the treatment. Massage schools often have clinics offering treatments by students supervised by experienced therapists at a lower fee or sliding scale.

Woman massaging the back of her neck.


Supplementing treatment with self-massage can increase the benefits of massage therapy. This is also an option if you can’t afford regular treatments. Larger, more vigorous strokes can help you warm up muscles, as can applying heat prior to starting. After you have warmed up, continue with smaller strokes, rubbing back and forth across a particular area, or applying pressure. You may want to book a session with a massage therapist to learn some techniques you can use on yourself.

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.