When you hear the word massage, you may think of lying on a cushioned table in a softly lit treatment room at an upscale day spa while a therapist gently kneads your sore muscles and strokes your skin with scented oils. Or, you may think of a sweaty football player having his sore muscles roughly pounded by a trainer in the locker room after a game. Both images are accurate. Massage therapy can be relaxing and soothing, or rough and intense, depending on the type of massage involved.

Massage is an umbrella term covering many different techniques and healing philosophies. In general, massage is manipulation of the body’s skin, muscles and connective tissues, usually with the hands, but also with mechanical tools applied to the body’s surface. You may seek massage from a licensed, trained massage therapist, but you may also massage your own sore joints and muscles with your hands or massage tools.

Massage often is used to relieve common symptoms of many types of arthritis: reducing pain and stiffness, easing anxiety, improving range of motion in joints, and promoting more restful sleep.

“Massage can result in a significant reduction in pain” for people with all types of arthritis, says Tiffany Field, PhD, a research psychologist at the University of Miami Medical School. Any type of full-body massage therapy that involves moderate pressure, including self-massage, should help relieve arthritis pain and ease tension, Field says.

Field emphasizes that moderate pressure is key, to stimulate the pressure receptors under the skin that convey signals to the brain to alleviate pain and release beneficial, stress-reducing neurochemicals like serotonin. “We’ve found that light pressure in massage is arousing, not relaxing. With light pressure, the heart rate goes up, the blood pressure goes up. Moderate pressure stimulates relaxation, the heart rate goes down, the blood pressure goes down,” she says.

People with arthritis who experience chronic symptoms may consider using massage therapy regularly, even daily use of self-massage, to help manage their pain and stiffness, or to promote better sleep that can in turn relieve pain in muscles and joints, Field notes.

Main Types of Massage

Massage is an ancient form of pain and stress relief practiced by most worldwide cultures. These techniques may involve not only physical manipulation of the body’s tissues, but also relaxation techniques. Massage may involve use of heat and cold applications to the skin, or the use of oil or lotion to ease gliding of hands or tools against the skin.

Here’s a brief overview of the many types of massage therapy. Be sure to tell your massage therapist that you have arthritis, and point out particular joints that are affected, prior to your session. Before getting any type of massage, consult your doctor to make sure massage is safe for your arthritis and any other health conditions you may have.