Educate Yourself: Massaging a Client with ALS

By Sharon Puszko, PhD, LMT
February 4, 2014

Educate Yourself: Massaging a Client with ALS

By Sharon Puszko, PhD, LMT
February 4, 2014

In 1941, baseball legend Lou Gehrig died of a neurological disorder known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. For the first time, people in cities across the country were discussing this rare and mysterious disease in their newspapers and on their radio stations. During the 70 years that have passed since then, advances in scientific research have provided us with a better understanding of the causes, symptoms, types and treatment of ALS. However, there is still no proven cure for the disease. Over the past 10 years, physicians have increasingly turned to massage therapy to help their patients manage the symptoms of the disease.

While this is fantastic news for practitioners of massage therapy, it also means we must educate ourselves about ALS. Do you know what the symptoms of ALS are? Are you aware of how the disease affects people emotionally? Would you treat an ALS client the same way you would treat an athlete? In order for massage therapy to be truly beneficial to PALS (People with ALS), massage therapists must do their best to learn appropriate techniques for ALS clients and do their best to understand what life is like for PALS.

What is ALS?

ALS is an incurable, degenerative, neurological disorder affecting the nerve cells of the brain and spinal chord that control voluntary muscle movement. These nerve cells deliver messages from the brain to the skeletal muscles of the body involved with voluntary movements such as walking, writing or playing an instrument. As these cells gradually deteriorate, the brain can no longer tell the body what to do. For instance, the brain of an ALS patient will tell its hand to pick up a pen and start to write, but the message will no longer be able to reach the hand. Muscles eventually waste away from disuse and this can lead to paralysis in the late stages of the disease.

The ALS Association says there are about 30,000 Americans living with ALS and about 5,600 people are diagnosed with the disease every year in the United States. ALS is more common among men than women and the majority of cases appear in people between the ages of 40 and 70. ALS has no economic, racial or ethnic boundaries and occurs in two out of every 100,000 people worldwide.

What Causes ALS?

There is no one definitive cause of ALS. There are several theories surrounding the causes of the two types of ALS occurring in the United States: sporadic and familial. Sporadic ALS is the most common type of the disease, accounting for 90% to 95% of all cases. Disturbances in the immune system, excess levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate and exposure to fertilizers, heavy metals or animal hides are all possible factors that may influence the likely hood of acquiring sporadic ALS. Familial ALS (FALS) accounts for the remaining 5% to 10% of ALS cases in the United States. About 40% of familial ALS cases are linked to a defective gene on chromosome 21 that does not produce a normal amount of the enzyme superoxide dismutase. It is unknown at this time what genetic defect is the cause for the remaining 60% of people with FALS.

Symptoms of ALS

Initially, patients with ALS usually experience a weakening of skeletal muscles in the arms and legs. They might also have frequent muscle spasms in these areas. People with ALS find it difficult to pick things up, walk, swallow and communicate effectively. As the disease progresses, the muscles of the arm and legs will begin to atrophy. During the final stages of the disease, the respiratory muscles that control breathing deteriorate and the patient must depend on a respirator for the rest of his/her life.

ALS Effects

Some of the most common physical problems people with ALS encounter are: dysphagia and the need to meet nutritional requirements; the maintenance of blood gases within normal range; impaired verbal communication; weakness, impaired mobility and activity intolerance; constipation; and pain and discomfort due to muscle cramps. Depression is common among ALS patients and many experience an alteration in self-concept and body image.

Common Treatments

Rilutex (riluzole) is one of the only drugs that has proven to prolong a patient's life and delay the progression of ALS. Most of the other medications (Baclofen, Zanaflex, Tramadol) prescribed by doctors are to help ease the patient's pain, not to treat the disease. Because many of the symptoms people with ALS suffer from are related to skeletal muscles, physical therapy and massage therapy are now being recommended as another form of pain management.

How Can Massage Help?

Massage therapy increases blood circulation, relaxes muscles, improves range of motion, reduces pain and swelling and promotes improved respiration: all of which can help treat symptoms ALS patients suffer from. People with advanced ALS are often threatened by decubitus ulcers from lack of activity. Massage therapy can help a patient maintain good circulation in order to avoid decubitus ulcers; at the same time, it can also help the patient overcome depressive feelings he/she might be having as a result of a recent loss of speech or the disease in general.

Dr. Robert Pascuzzi, a Professor of Neurology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, is of the opinion that massage therapy, "can be very beneficial to patients with ALS. Those who have been fortunate enough to receive such therapy all seem enthusiastic about the effects: relaxation... rest... feeling good. If their muscles are stiff and spastic it helps relax them and makes their skin feel better. Remember, these patients have intact sensation; they just have weak muscles. I have probably had 10 or 20 ALS patients receive massage therapy over the years. I think doctors should suggest ALS patients try massage therapy, as it would be well worth a try for everyone. I think it improves the quality of their day. They feel better."

Below are some techniques designed specifically for the needs of an ALS patient.

Passive and Assistive Range of Motion Exercises

Range of motion exercises will prevent or at least slow down the freezing of joints as the disease progresses and the body moves less often. As always, check with the doctor before doing any of these movements.

General instructions:

  1. Move only to the point of resistance. Do not force the movement.
  2. Keep limbs supported throughout motion.
  3. Move slowly, watching the patient's face for response to ROM.
  4. For patients with increased tone, move slowly and consistently.
  5. Remember to use proper body mechanics to protect yourself.

While people in advanced stages of ALS might not be able to give verbal feedback to a massage, often they can let you know what they are feeling by the movement of facial muscles or the blinking of eyes. By asking "yes" and "no" questions, it is possible to work successfully with an ALS patient.