The Autoimmune Client: Can Massage Really Help?

May 04, 2018

The 3 Things to Know When You Give a Massage to a Client with an Autoimmune Disease

This is a topic that I understand too well and could write an entire book on! But not today. Today I am going to give you some things to think about that might answer some questions for you and possibly change how you massage someone with an autoimmune disease for the better.

Having a history of an autoimmune disease myself, I can tell you from personal experience what massage can do and cannot do for someone like me. I can also tell you what really helps and what sets me back so quickly with holistic medicine.

Autoimmune issues are popping up more and more. While we could have a huge discussion on the reasons why there are more autoimmune sufferers, let me just offer you what I know and understand about my own body and how I deal (successfully) with managing the disease process inside myself, and my clientele, with massage.

The bottom line for people who have an autoimmune disease is that they/you have to figure out how to live within their/your “energy means”. In other articles on this blog site, I discuss energy surplus and energy debt, but for now let me sum it up with the 3 things that massage MUST do for me to gain any value from it.

1. We may want deep tissue, and ask for it, but it makes us hurt more.

The reason we want deep tissue is that we want “deep change”. It’s very natural to equate deep change to deep pressure so it is what we think we need to get better.

Autoimmune people, like myself, are tired of feeling weak and unable to do what we want from day to day. The pain, the depression, the fatigue, the loss of control of our own body – the list goes on and on. So we begin to think: maybe if you will massage me harder than I will feel better? Nothing is further from the truth.

It took me some time, and being in a lot of pain, before I listened to my own body. If you do not tolerate any deep tissue work, the most natural response to select for alternative treatment clientele is energy work. But energy work just didn’t cut it for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love energy work, but to function somewhat normal every day the things I did to help myself holistically needed to create “deep change”.

So what is “deep change” and what does it feel like? It is the energy I feel after my massage – MUCH MORE ENERGY. That is what deep change feels like.

When I can get a massage that decreases the overall pain and fatigue feeling in my body, then I automatically feel like I have more energy to live and function. If I’m not required to “spend” the energy to fight pain, then I can automatically “spend” the energy to heal. It really is that simple. This is the way holistic medicine works. When it is all said and done, we as massage therapists don’t actually create more energy for people with massage. We just redistribute it.

*The trick is learning how to maximize that redistribution to the greatest potential it can offer.

The difference between someone with an autoimmune issue and someone without is this: For me, I have to constantly create the opportunity to shift the “energy spending” my body does. I have to watch my spending habits closely (activities). Someone without an autoimmune issue has the natural ability to self-correct –  they have more to spend then I do at all times. My body spends an enormous amount of energy with the immune system fighting a war every day. I no longer seem to be able to self-correct my energy needs and have to do it “manually” on a regular basis. (that’s a play on massage words by the way). It seems to work.

The deep change I have/need to see is evident to my therapist and myself when my pain level goes from an 8 when I lay down on the table to a 3 when I stand up from my massage. Presto! Manual reset with energy! My body then uses this “surplus” of energy created by the massage – because the energy I was using to fight pain is now available – to heal itself. If I am being more proactive, I get a massage when my pain level reaches a 5 or 6. The change down to a 1 or 2 is much more profound for healing.

Getting massage more frequently DOES make a difference.

2. Whatever technique you use on me cannot increase my inflammation

The first belief you will need to change to work with autoimmune clients is that all holistic medicine/massage is relatively good and therefore will help all people in a positive way to some degree when applied to them. Nothing could be further from the truth!

The sicker someone is with any autoimmune issue, the more refined and selective you have to be with your application. Using every tool in your massage toolbox in one session to try and help will backfire on my body. Massage therapists typically do this because they don’t know what to do to help people who are struggling this much so we pull out the big guns and use everything we have. While I am forever thankful for this kind of care and effort on my behalf, a massage like this will make me sick, tired, and in *more* pain for at least 3-5 days after.

For me, the worst thing you can do is apply techniques that increase inflammation; Trigger Point, Sports, Deep Tissue, sometimes even the stretch of Myofascial bodywork. This is a hard one for therapists because most hands-on skills help the body heal through what is known as “therapeutic inflammation”.

To compound the autoimmune scenario further, if your client has asked for “deep pressure”, you try to give your client what they want, right? This is a recipe for an energy and autoimmune disaster. This reaction can actually cause a “flare” in the autoimmune disease symptoms for your client.

How does therapeutic inflammation cause a flare?

A flare occurs when the body runs out of energy and starts to lose the war that the immune system is fighting daily. The energy from the immune system was forced to divert from fighting the disease to supplying the materials to heal muscle and tissues that were put into “therapeutic inflammation”. Distribution of energy was forced to change all because of a deep tissue massage. This is where holistic medicine can backfire for the autoimmune person. This happened to me.

I was a deep tissue massage therapists getting deep tissue massage and getting sicker with more pain. I was desperate to be out of pain and out of the flare cycle but everything I tried with massage therapy (or chiropractic; PT) made me hurt more and have more fatigue. So through trial and error I created my own technique in massage therapy that created the change of Trigger Pointing in the muscles without creating inflammation. I call it Reverse Trigger Pointing.

Check it out here: Pain Patterns & Solutions Bodywork

This is the tool every therapist needs to be able to pull out of  their magic massage toolbox when working with autoimmune people like myself. This work has literally saved my life and now it is my life’s work to teach others.

3. Just because you cant see the disease does not mean it doesn’t exist.

I get really frustrated with this myself. On the outside, most people would see me as a successful, self-driven woman with a ton of energy and ambition. It is how I see myself and wish to be.

However, to live with me is to know that I drag myself out of bed at the last possible minute in the morning and then I have to lay down everyday at 4 or 5:00 PM or I cant function the rest of the evening. Sometimes its just 20 minutes. Other times it is an hour. Right now, I’m in love with my Instapot because it does the work for me to prepare dinner for my family while I’m laying down.

It is what it is. Learning to live with an autoimmune disease is the only way to actually live. Trying to live like it doesn’t exist will, literally, kill you.

What my massage therapist needs to know and understand for me and others like me is this:

The one side effect not listed in the symptom section of an autoimmune disease is what you also have to deal with every day that can't be seen on the outside. The stigma of an autoimmune disease is hard.


The fatigue and limitations affect me deeply as well as my family, husband, and work. I don’t casually volunteer in the community or at my children’s schools because I NEVER KNOW if I can actually follow through with what I can say I will help with. I have crashed and burned so many times after donating my “time & energy” when I actually didn’t have it to give. I have learned to donate classroom supplies (and limit my time).

When I run out of energy I have learned I just have to stop. Things are left unfinished. Blog posts are half written, projects left to be worked on the next day, the laundry is not folded, weeds grow in the yard -you get the picture. What appears as laziness and procrastination, along with a heavy dose of “I don’t remember” brain fog, affects you deeply.

It is hard to stay positive. I so greatly need positive touch and a positive environment to facilitate the healing massage can offer to counteract the negativity that can creep in daily.

Last year for Mother’s Day, my son handed me a beautiful project they made at school. The children were asked to fill in the blank for questions that were asked about their mom like such as her favorite color or food. So cute!

When the question came up, “what is your mother’s favorite thing to do?”, my son wrote “take a nap”. Yes… yes it is my favorite thing! I just sometimes wish it was play tennis, or run races, or play with him in the yard. *Sigh*. But I know that I am a good mommy if not a tired one. But who isn’t tired that’s a mom?

Back to the massage I need!