As more and more Americans incorporate alternative therapies into their program of health care, people with diabetes, too, are looking to the usefulness of different therapies to complement their lifestyle measures and medical care. One such alternative therapy is massage.
The therapeutic use of touch might be seen as a new development in health care, but there are traditions of touch therapies that date back through the centuries in cultures around the world. The Chinese have written records of therapeutic massage dating to 3000 BC, and there are ancient Egyptian pictographs showing the practice of foot massage.
In recent times, the field of massage has gained prominence in the areas of athletic training, medical massage, and spa and fitness centers. So a person with diabetes seeking to optimize his health care may well wonder whether massage therapy might be useful to him.
Benefits of massage therapy
There are many benefits of massage therapy for people with diabetes. Most of these would be similar to the benefits of massage for the general population, but the following are of particular interest for people with diabetes.
Relaxation. The value of basic relaxation cannot be overemphasized. Living with diabetes is inherently stressful. Fluctuating blood sugar levels put tremendous strain on the body’s systems. The practical demands of balancing intake of insulin or oral medicines, blood glucose monitoring, nutrition, and exercise can seem like a daunting task for many. Worry about diabetic complications or anxiety relating to work or interpersonal relationships can add to the picture of stress.
By sedating the nervous system, massage can bring a much-needed rest and an assuring sense of well-being to the body. Skillfully applied touch can have a profound effect on body chemistry, decreasing the production of stress hormones, with resulting beneficial effects to blood sugar levels. (Stress hormones generally raise blood sugar levels.)
Increased circulation. Massage increases the circulation of blood and lymph, facilitating the transport of oxygen and other nutrients into the body’s tissues. Improved circulation allows for more efficient uptake of insulin by the cells. Circulation is often impaired in people with diabetes due to the damaging effects of elevated blood sugar levels on the cells of the body.
Myofascial effects. Massage works directly with the muscles (myo) and connective tissues (fascia) in the body, helping to facilitate greater mobility in the body. This is especially important for people with diabetes, because elevated blood sugar causes a thickening of connective tissue, which affects the mobility and elasticity of the myofascial system. This may be experienced as stiffness in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments or as a decreased range of motion in the joints.
Stress hormones also contribute to chemical changes in the connective tissue, causing a stickiness between the layers of fascia. Massage therapy can significantly counter this effect. Stretching and regular exercise are also important to help encourage flexibility and health of the myofascial system.
Putting massage to the test
Over the past year, I have supervised a clinic where my student interns give massage to people with diabetes. This has been a tremendous opportunity to observe the benefits of therapeutic massage, and to record changes in blood sugar level during the course of a session.
The students who participate in the clinic have all received their basic instruction in Swedish or Integrative Therapeutic Massage. They are in the final quarter of their massage school training, and this clinic provides them the opportunity to practice their skills, offering massage free of charge to clients as part of their community service. All protocols of professional massage practice are observed, including doing a medical history intake interview, observing client confidentiality, and using appropriate techniques.