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Rheumatoid Arthritis and Massage: How to Handle a Chronic Condition

by Lisa Rose October 30, 2016

Rheumatoid Arthritis and Massage: How to Handle a Chronic Condition

There’s no doubt about it, Rheumatoid arthritis is not a good thing. Statistics say that approximately 1.5 million people in the US have it, and around 75% of those are women, although it has been estimated that 2.4 in 100 men between the ages of 18 and 79, of European ethnicity, are likely to get Rheumatoid Arthritis. It might not sound like a lot, but the chances are that as a massage therapist, you are going to come across the occasional patient with this problem.

Massage therapy has been known to improve the situation for sufferers of this debilitating condition and those who have opted to come to you for a treatment may have some expectations or hopes as to how you’re going to be able to help them. Obviously there are no guarantees and a massage therapist is not a Doctor, but it certainly helps if the therapist has at least a basic understanding of the condition and how it is affected by massage. 


This type of arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means that the body will mistakenly attack its own tissues – namely, the synovial tissues around joints; it gets progressively worse if left untreated and anywhere in the body is susceptible to it, and it’s not just bones, cartilage and ligaments that are affected. In some cases even the heart and lungs are damaged by this condition. The main symptoms sufferers report are severe pain and swelling, which can often lead to irreversible disability. This usually happens over the course of around ten years, and where the condition is inadequately treated, approximately 60% of people are unable to work by ten-year mark.

Massage is known to improve the condition quickly

Causes are not exactly known but it is thought that heredity is a factor, as well as environment and lifestyle. The condition can flare up before dying down again repeatedly, so sometimes your massage patient may feel worse than others. Generally, Rheumatoid arthritis will affect the smaller joints, as can be seen in the distorted finger and thumb joints of some sufferers, but it eventually affects larger joints like the hips, knees, shoulders. The time between flare-ups decreases as the condition progresses, and other symptoms will include fatigue, anemia, weight loss and fevers. It is down to your client to manage the majority of those symptoms of course, but as a therapist you are able to offer a valuable service in terms of assisting in strengthening the joints and helping them to move more easily. 

Studies have demonstrated that a moderate pressure during massage gives the best results, so erring on the side of caution with too light a pressure may not yield many benefits for the your client. Provided that the client isn’t caused discomfort during the massage, moderate pressure on the affected areas once a week should result in better flexibility and less pain after only one month. Other benefits noted were elevated moods and decreased anxiety, which makes sense if less pain is being experienced!

It may be that potential customers with Rheumatoid arthritis don’t know that massage therapy is good for them; perhaps it hasn’t occurred to them, or they are concerned that they’ll experience pain during the treatment. If that is the case, the chances are that they won’t be passing through your reception or browsing your website any time soon, but it wouldn’t hurt to make it known that you are able to assist with such conditions. It is more likely that one of your usual customers will notice it and pass the information on to a relative or friend they know that has it.

Have you ever had an experience with a client suffering from this condition? We’d like to hear about it if so. Was it positive and did you see an improvement? Would you feel comfortable massaging a chronic sufferer? Let us know your thoughts.

Lisa Rose
Lisa Rose


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Massage Table Size Guide

Massage tables comes in many different shapes and size. It can be confusing for you, the customer, to choose the right one but we are here to help!

A lot of customers call us up after they have bought the wrong size massage table elsewhere and we would like to help you avoid this mistake. It normally goes something like this; they like the look of a picture of a massage table on a website, they like the low price and then they check the carrying weight is ok. If the carrying weight fits their needs they click add to cart and the new massage table turns up at their doorstep in a few days. They unfortunately assume all massage tables are pretty much the same width and size.

The standard size of a massage table is 28 inches wide (71cms) and 73 inches (185cms) long. One of the reasons many "lightweight" budget massage tables are so cheap is because

  1.  They are smaller in size (normally around 61cms wide) and as such have less materials
  2. They are sold by specialist retailers who also sell anything else they can import and turn a profit on. As such they just buy the cheapest massage tables they can find in China. They go for smaller sizes as they are cheaper.

Make sure the massage table is the right size for you and your clients as the narrow massage tables at 61cms can be very uncomfortable for anyone who isn't petite and many clients cannot relax with their shoulders and arms unsupported.


The Width of the Massage Table:

Almost all therapists choose the standard 28 inch wide massage table. All our massage tables are the same length so it is only the width and shape our customers need to decide on.

Your massage table should be wide enough to cater for the wide variety of shapes and sizes of your clients. It needs to be wide enough to comfortably accommodate your treatment style, while being narrow enough to ensure you don’t have to strain your own back during treatments.

Each therapist's postural training and ability is different, so only you will know what massage table width you can handle. We have spoken to therapists who are five feet tall and get the wider 30 inch massage tables, and we speak to six foot therapists who have back problems and go for a 25 inch wide massage table. Everyone is different.

Generally speaking, if you are of smaller stature, you may do better with one of the narrower 25-inch massage tables. If you're quite tall, or are particularly keen to offer your clients a very spacious experience, a 30-inch massage table might be more suitable.

If you are in doubt, see if you can go into your local training college and see whether the massage tables there suit you. However, there is another way to get a feel for what will work of you don’t have access to a couch when you are deciding:

Cut out a piece of cardboard to the dimensions of both sizes you are deciding between. Put it on top of the kitchen table and lean over it. Visualise a client lying there, and see which width will suit you and your client best.

measuring the width of a massage table

Make sure you can get close enough to the table that you can pivot at the waist and have your shoulders squared to the clients hips, with your hands parallel to the clients' spine. Working in this position will ensure an injury-free career, so it's an important factor in your decision.

The most popular massage table widths are 28 and 30 inches. We sell 25-inch massage tables but you should really only choose this width if you are shorter in height and having a wider massage table might put your own back at risk over the course of your career.

You can also choose the 25-inch if you want to have the lightest massage table possible. By reducing the width of the massage table, the weight is also reduced. Now, this can mean a trade-off of some client comfort, but this trade is often worthwhile if you are a fully mobile therapist and use public transport frequently, where saving a kilogram or two will make a difference to you over time.


The Height Of the Massage Table

Nowadays, almost all portable massage tables come with height adjustable legs. Whichever massage table you choose should come with a large height range to accommodate you, and to cater for a broad range of therapies.

A common height range of massage tables is between 60 to 80cm, and this height range should cater for everyone. To check which height you need your massage table to be at follow this rule of thumb:

1. Stand up straight with your hands by your sides. Clench your fists.
2. Measure the distance between the floor and your knuckles
3. This distance should equal the height of your massage table.
4. Add a few inches in height to allow for the body of the patient on the massage table.

The height of a massage table is usually only adjusted when different therapists are using the same massage table, or if you have a client that is outside the average size you normally treat. So for example, if someone with a lot of body depth comes for a treatment after an average size person, you may need to adjust the height a notch or two.

You should be able to adjust the height of a massage table in just 2-3 minutes. Even though you mightn't adjust the height very often, the faster the better when you do have to!

There are 2 types of height adjustment mechanisms found on modern massage tables.

1) Twisting knobs (found only on wooden massage tables):

If you are working with a wooden massage table, it is better to have two knobs on each of the four legs for greater strength and reliability. When buying online, make sure to check how many knobs are on the legs. Cheap massage tables often only have one knob, and when you raise the legs to the highest heights they are less stable and have been known to snap.

2) Telescopic push-buttons (found only on aluminium massage tables):

The mechanism to adjust the height of an aluminium massage table is much the same as the push-button method on aluminium crutches. It only takes a few seconds to adjust each leg, and the mechanism is very reliable. Check out the video to see how it’s done.


Massage Table Shape:

The following are the different shapes of massage tables on the market.

1. Rectangle shaped with square corners 

This is the traditional shape of a massage table and the one you are probably familiar with seeing. Our Combi-lite 3 in 1 and Affinity Portaflex are shaped like this.

2. Rectangle shaped with rounded corners

Same as no 1 above in every way except the corners are rounded. Does not affect function in any way, just a different design/look.


3. Hour glass shaped with gradual gradient 

A fabulous massage table innovation in recent years, which solves a lot of the problems around choosing the correct width is the hourglass shaped massage table.

This style of massage table is wider at the ends, and tapers somewhat at the middle. This provide a spacious and comfortable experience for your client (as the shoulder and feet area are 30 inches wide) without compromising your own posture and health, as the middle of the couch where you lean over is a much narrower 26 inches wide.Having recently upgraded to one of these hourglass massage tables myself, I can vouch that my working days are much more comfortable, and many of my clients have commented on the extra comfort from the wider shoulder area.


4. Hour glass shaped with sharp gradient
Same as point above but instead of the it gradually going from wide to narrow, the massage table changes quickly from normal width to narrow width so people of very short stature can get in close.
5. Oval Shaped

 The name says it all! There are no corners on the massage table. Therapists normally choose this for one of two reasons. They simply like the look of this massage table and it is aesthetically more pleasing in their treatment room and/or they find it easier to move around the massage table during the treatment without having to side step the corners. This is particularly handy when space is limited in your treatment room.

oval massage table


Have any questions or comments about anything above? Please let us know in the comments below!