A hard workout or long walk can often lead to sore muscles that clamor for immediate relief. When you don’t have time for a professional massage, sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands.  Self-massage is a great way to target painful areas and provide immediate relief, when and where you need it most.

“Self-massage is probably the oldest form of healing,” says Bob McAtee, RMT, CSCS, CPT, owner of Pro-Active Massage Therapy in Colorado Springs, Colo. “It’s an instinctive activity that many animals perform. When a dog or cat is injured, she licks the area. When we hurt, we automatically hold the area, maybe even rub it, or lick it, or blow on it,” he says.

Massage is not just a relaxing way to pamper yourself. Research shows that massage is beneficial in helping control arthritis pain.

In a 2006 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers assigned adults with osteoarthritis of the knee either to treatment or to control. Those in the treatment group received twice-weekly sessions of Swedish massage (one of the oldest and most common types of massage) for four weeks followed by once-weekly sessions for the next four weeks. Those who were part of the control group received no massage treatment. Researchers found that the group receiving massage therapy showed improved pain, stiffness and physical function and greater range of motion.

In another study published in 2007 by the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, adults with arthritis of the wrist and hand either received massage therapy or standard treatment. The participants in the massage therapy group received massage on the affected wrist or hand for a four-week period and were also taught self-massage that was to be done at home. At the end of the study, the massage therapy group showed lower anxiety and depressed mood scores than the control group, and reported less pain and greater grip strength after their sessions.  

McAtee concurs with the research. “Practicing self-massage on a regular basis will improve your overall comfort and increase the range of motion in arthritic joints,” he says. “Not only can we deal with common aches and pains with self-massage, we can also mitigate the general effects of stress, and be in more control of what happens in our body.”

Self-massage is easy to learn and perform. Here are some basic instructions that McAtee recommends:

  • Self-massage techniques usually include large, vigorous strokes to help warm up and prepare the muscles, then smaller, more precise strokes to target specific areas of pain or discomfort.  
  • Smaller strokes might include holding pressure points, rubbing back and forth across a small area, or deeper strokes along the length of a muscle. “You can't really do it wrong, unless you're rubbing so hard that you cause pain to yourself,” says McAtee.
  • Self-massage can be done with or without oil or lotion. “When you have lubrication on the skin, gliding and sliding strokes are easier to perform,” he says. “It's strictly a matter of personal choice.”  
  • Applying heat prior to self-massage may help the muscles to relax and feel better as you work on them.
  • McAtee recommends self-massage as a wonderful activity before bedtime to help you sleep.
  • Even if you regularly receive professional massage therapy, self-massage in between those sessions will help extend the benefits of your massage appointments.