Massage for Strokes
Published in Progressive Health CHOICES, Spring 1997

by John W. Cartmell, LMP

Massage is probably the most effective therapy there is for restoring normal nerve function after a stroke, but it’s been virtually ignored as a therapy option. Nerve damage occurs when areas of the brain are deprived of adequate oxygen, usually from a burst blood vessel, blood clot or a spasm in an artery. Symptoms may include numbness, muscle weakness or paralysis, confusion and memory disruption or pain.  Potentially every cell and organ in the body can be affected.

One of my mother’s fears was that something like this might happen to her and she’d be resigned to a life of having to depend on others. It was very discouraging for her when at age 67, with diabetes and heart disease, she suffered a stroke that left her numb on her entire left side. She couldn’t walk without a limp or write her own name, her mouth drooped, she slurred her speech and her eyes crossed so she couldn’t read or watch TV.

That happened during the second week of my massage schooling. Our homework included doing a full massage on someone every day. I asked if I could do all of my massages on my mother because of her recent stroke, and the instructor, who had used massage therapy to recover from a stroke herself, readily agreed.

With strokes, the intent of massage is to stimulate the nerves in such a way that the nervous system can’t ignore the stimulation. It’s believed the tactile stimulation of "Nerve Strokes" causes the nervous system to track and process the tactile sensations. In trying to find better more efficient ways of handling the information, the brain is forced to develop new circuitry by establishing cellular connections around the damaged areas. Traditional massage is also recommended for the therapeutic benefits stated above, but the primary focus of massage for strokes should be to stimulate the nerves.

"Nerve Strokes" are done by dragging the full palm, fingers trailing, slowly and lightly from head to feet or down the arms to the hands. The pattern is changed frequently so as not to become monotonous. After a few times stroking from the head to the hands, you go perhaps from the head to the hands and on to the leg on one side, while the hand on the other side goes perhaps only to the elbow... Then, every ten minutes or so you may do some fast, brisk strokes from feet to head, and then resume the traditional slow tactile strokes. These slow strokes can also be varied and done just above the skin so that just the electrical field from the therapist’s nerves is impacting the patient’s nerve field. Frequency of treatment should be daily for weeks or months. Best results are probably achieved if massage is begun as soon after the stroke as possible. Complete recovery is common when massage is utilized in this manner.

I had a 52 year old male client who was unable to walk across the room without the aid of his wife. After 5 treatments, he was driving himself alone to my office and walking down the steps without a handrail. I had another client in her 70’s who’s pain after her stroke all but disappeared after 3 treatments. As for my mother, except for a little numbness on the tip of her tongue and two toes, she fully recovered from her stroke after 5 months of daily massage.

The biggest problem in using massage therapy for stroke rehabilitation has been the lack of insurance coverage. We may see this change with the ongoing reforms in health care where the need to meet financial demands has spurred an active interest in alternative methods of treatment.

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