Massage Today
Massage Today dotted line
dotted line

dotted line
Share |
  Forward PDF Version  
Massage Today
October, 2011, Vol. 11, Issue 10

Massage and Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy

By Rita Woods, LMT

You can use your massage skills and talents to work on clients with diabetic and chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathies. The degree of success is dependent upon the stage/severity of the neuropathy, client compliance with their own medical care and the "homework" you give them, and your understanding and use of the correct massage therapy protocol.

Neuropathies are characterized by a progressive loss of nerve fiber function. Diabetic peripheral neuropathy or (DPN) can be defined as "the presence of symptoms and or signs of peripheral nerve dysfunction in people with diabetes after exclusion of other causes." This is by far the most common form of neuropathy and one that you are likely to see in your massage practice. Symptoms include pain, tingling, a burning sensation, numbness or loss of feeling, pins and needles feeling and even muscle weakness. This neuropathy usually starts in the toes (in the most distal peripheral nerves) then progresses to the foot, then up the ankle and so on. The hands can be affected in the same way. This condition is almost always bilateral, involving both feet and or both hands. While DPN can involve organs and other body systems, our goal here, staying within our scope of practice, is to normalize function in the feet and hands using appropriate massage therapy techniques. It's important to understand some processes to help hone your skills and to help educate your clients about why it is important to follow their doctors orders. Understanding the why of something often encourages participation and compliance.

Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark First, let's look at the condition itself. The feet of a person with long-term or poorly treated diabetes will often look discolored in a mottled pattern, bluish, shiny/tight or swollen. The client may or may not have been diagnosed with diabetes. Often, it's the neuropathy that causes them to go see their doctor. Early stages usually show no outward physical signs but more advanced stages may show blue toes. This can (and usually does) eventually turn to gangrene where the tissue dies and turns black. The first sign of gangrene can look like a small poppy seed sized black spot. This tissue cannot be regenerated and amputation is the end result of this progression. Naturally, the goal is to begin working on these feet before the condition gets to that point. Following is a case study provided by Charlotte Versagi, LMT, using the massage protocol. This was her first and most dramatic case that eventually led to the saving of hundreds of toes and feet.

The client was a 55-year-old male construction worker with severe diabetes and bilateral cold/blue feet with numbness and tingling. He could barely stand to have his feet touched and his feet were so painful from neuropathy that he could barely get his feet into his work boots in the morning and almost cried when he pried his boots off at night. When he went to the doctor, he was told, "you should plan on an amputation sometime in the near future." There was no mention of any treatment option, no additional medication proposed, just "plan on amputation."

He came to Charlotte asking what she could do. She started the protocol, very slowly, very lightly and called in his wife to teach her. After a few weeks, they were going in "to the bone" as the protocol suggests. He came once per week. His wife was performing the protocol twice a day. He rubbed his own feet whenever he could. In four months, he had almost no pain, had full function and his feet were warm to the touch and normally colored. The doctor retracted his statement about amputation. It should be noted that the client was following a strict diet and taking his medication as directed and was compliant with all aspects of his diabetes care.

Glucose in the body undergoes a series of chemical reactions. If you consume normal amounts of sugars (fructose, sucrose, any form of "sugar" including honey) the early stages of the chemical reactions form an equilibrium reaction. This is called a reversible reaction and allows the body to function optimally. On the other hand, if too much sugar is consumed, these reactions are not reversible and a cascade of events take place by joining the glucose molecule with a protein or fat in an abnormal process which is pathological in nature. This process is called glycation and involves every fundamental process of cellular metabolism. Eventually, through a series of reactions, you wind up with advanced glycation end products or AGEs. These are bad things and cause nothing but harm and damage.

Glycation has been implicated in many diseases and inflammatory processes. It affects the cardiovascular system in a very big way. Tissues that have a slow turnover (more permanent) in the body are most affected by glycation. So the cardiovascular system, connective tissue and skin, nerve tissue and renal tissue are major targets. Inside a blood vessel are elastin fibers to which AGE molecules will attach, thus decreasing the diameter (or caliber) of the blood vessel. There is also a lot of collagen in the arterial walls that can cross-link with the AGE molecules further compromising the blood vessels ability to function properly. Each time there is a glucose spike and AGE molecules are formed, distal circulation is compromised and the blood vessels themselves become occluded beginning with the small capillaries. Unable to supply the surrounding tissue and nerves with nutrients and oxygen the resulting oxidative debt turns toes blue and causes nerves to malfunction sending signals to the brain of pain, tingling, burning and numbness. In addition to the mechanical damage, it is believed these toxic AGE molecules (and other toxins) also trigger the release of substances that further damage the adjacent nerves.

The most important factor to getting DPN under control is to first stop the sugar spikes. Clients must maintain their glucose at a balanced level. No great highs or lows. (They know what level their doctor wants them to maintain.) With diet and medication under control, the massage therapy protocol (coming next article) can truly help save toes and feet from amputation and relieve some or all of the pain and misery of the neuropathy. The next article will discuss chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy and give the detailed step-by-step massage therapy protocol for peripheral neuropathy as developed by Charlotte Michael Versagi who has graciously allowed me to share it, in its entirety, with Massage Today readers.

Editor's Note: For additional information, see Step-By-Step Massage Therapy Protocols for Common Conditions by Charlotte Michael Versagi with contributions by Rita D. Woods. Published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2011. To find this book and more on medical protocols, visit or

Click here for previous articles by Rita Woods, LMT.


Join the conversation
Comments are encouraged, but you must follow our User Agreement
Keep it civil and stay on topic. No profanity, vulgar, racist or hateful comments or personal attacks. Anyone who chooses to exercise poor judgement will be blocked. By posting your comment, you agree to allow MPA Media the right to republish your name and comment in additional MPA Media publications without any notification or payment.
comments powered by Disqus
dotted line