Massage therapy may be helpful for strokes
New research suggests that massage therapy may be helpful in treating strokes

A new take on earlier studies showing that neuron excitability contributed to long-term symptoms of stroke is potentially giving massage therapists a plan for how to treat victims of stroke.

Reducing the glutamate storm

Ischemic strokes are the most common kind of stroke. They happen when a clot cuts off oxygen to the brain by creating a blockage in the blood vessels. This results in numbness, weakness, confusion, and difficulty speaking or performing simple tasks. The first 24 hours is critical to improving outcomes. Currently, the most common treatment is to give drugs that reduce clotting.

Strokes stimulate neuron excitability by releasing glutamate. Too much glutamate is toxic and can kill neurons that are already affected. Calming the overstimulated nerves can be effective in reducing the need for the glutamate storm. This is where massage therapy can make a difference.

What is happening after a stroke?

To effectively treat stroke, we need to understand the mechanisms involved. There are blood clots that we don't want to mobilize. Second, the nervous system is overstimulated and needs to calm down. Thirdly, the person is likely panicked, worried, and unable to move normally. The goals for massage will need to address the nervous system without increasing blood flow and create a sense of calm and confidence in self-care.

While treating a patient within the first 24 hours may be impossible, if the patient isn't seeing the massage therapist through a doctor referral, it's likely they could get massage quicker than physical therapy. The closer to the event, the more effective the treatment will be, but even within a few weeks can be helpful.

Possible massage treatment plan for stroke

As soon after the event as possible, practice these treatments on the client:

  • Nerve strokes to affected limbs
  • Gentle face and head massage
  • Gentle oscillation of the affected joints
  • Calming music
  • Visualization of calm movements (for example, walking through a garden or swimming in a warm ocean)
  • Healing meditations

After a few days, use:

  • Passive, gentle resistance to active weak muscles
  • Cross education with active assisted movement of other limb, then passive movement with affected limb through the same movements
  • Ongoing nerve strokes, gentle oscillations, face and head massage

Prescribe self-care, such as:

  • Resting with calming music
  • Visualizing normal, calm activities that make them happy
  • Meditating on healing and calming the nerves and brain

Spread the word

Massage can play a part in stroke recovery. Consider talking with your clients or sharing this blog post to help educate about the relationship between massage therapy and stroke.

In health,