Massage, Rolfing & Other Bodywork

Are They Effective Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Treatments?



The term bodywork is used for any therapeutic or healing methods that involve touching or physical manipulation. Bodywork encompasses a wide range of alternative-medicine techniques, including all types of massage, Rolfing, the Bowen Technique and Reiki.

Doctors usually recommend bodywork as a complementary treatment, not as the only treatment. While you may want to try alternative treatments your doctor doesn't recommend or endorse, you should include him/her in your decisions and report back to your doctor on your experience with the treatment.

Whether bodywork will help you with fibromyalgia (FMS) or chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS or ME/CFS) symptoms depends both on the form of bodywork and on your specific symptoms.


First, you need to understand the difference between Swedish massage, which is primarily for relaxation, and therapeutic massage, which is aimed at helping the body function better. A clinical massage therapist uses techniques such as myofascial release and neuromuscular therapy to get muscles and connective tissues to relax and function properly.

Research shows therapeutic massage can help people with FMS or ME/CFS, if it's the correct type of massage for the specific symptoms. Experts say massage is especially useful for people who can't exercise because it has similar effects on your tissues and circulatory system.

Make sure you're going to a licensed massage therapist (LMT) and be sure to discuss any other pain conditions or health problems you have.

Massage as a Fibromyalgia Treatment

Because FMS causes pain and makes your body extremely sensitive to touch and pressure, you probably won't be able to tolerate any kind of deep-tissue massage. Open lines of communication are vital when it comes to how much pressure he/she can put on your muscles. Make sure your massage therapist is familiar with the gentle touch required for treating FMS or is willing to do some research on it.

After a massage, you're likely to feel more relaxed and get a better night's sleep, which in turn can help alleviate your symptoms.

Massage as a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Treatment

Studies show gentle massage helps lower anxiety and improve sleep in people with ME/CFS. As with FMS, it's important to have a knowledgeable therapist and to talk about how much pressure you can tolerate.


Rolfing is a form of deep-tissue work with the goal of bringing segments of the body into proper alignment. It's based on the belief that the fascia (fibrous connective tissue that covers muscles and runs throughout the entire body) can get stiff, shortens and becomes less elastic, and thereby lead to a lot of musculoskeletal problems.

Rolfing as a Fibromyalgia Treatment

Rolfing generally involves high amounts of pressure and very deep tissue work, so while some practitioners may claim it's beneficial for fibromyalgia, most experts agree that this kind of bodywork will cause huge amounts of pain for people with FMS.

Rolfing as a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Treatment

Some scientific studies show Rolfing can improve the symptoms of ME/CFS, but not enough to prove conclusively that it will help you. Be sure to consider your pain levels and how much your tissues can tolerate before you try Rolfing.


The Bowen Technique involves gentle rubbing techniques that practitioners say send impulses to the brain and nervous system that alleviate pain, help relax your muscles, restore normal movement to joints and connective tissues and increase blood flow. The underlying theory is similar to acupuncture, and several Bowen moves involve acupuncture meridians and acupuncture points that are believed to bring your body's energy in balance. When the treatment is effective, relief is often immediate.

The Bowen Technique as a Fibromyalgia Treatment

In a study conducted by Jo Anne Whitaker, MD, of the American College of Rheumatology, almost all FMS participants had some relief, which lasted from a few days to several weeks. After several sessions, a few people reported a complete remission of FMS symptoms. Benefits can include better sleep, less neck pain, better balance and less dizziness.

The Bowen Technique as a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Treatment

So far, the Bowen Technique hasn't been studied as a treatment for ME/CFS, but at least one study is pending. In case reports from some practitioners, people praise Bowen as an ME/CFS treatment, but practitioners don't generally report negative experiences, if any, that some patients may have. Because Bowen is typically a gentle and safe form of therapy, it won't likely have a negative impact on your health. The questions, then, are whether it's something on which you want to spend your time and money.


Reiki (pronounced Ray-Key) is a Japanese technique based on the belief that spiritual energy, properly channeled, can heal the physical body. It can be done through light touch or even at a distance. Reiki is most often used for stress reduction and relaxation but also has many other applications.

Practitioners say it can help with pain, sleep, muscle tension, anxiety, depression, circulation and poor immune function.

Some practitioners recommend against using Reiki on anyone with a psychological disorder.

Reiki as a FibromyalgiaTreatment

Researchers from the University of Washington and Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, published in the Fall of 2008, studied Reiki as a fibromyalgia treatment and found it was not effective at reducing symptoms, using either touch or distance methods. The researchers recommend more research before Reiki is recommended as a fibromyalgia treatment.

We don't yet have any research on Reiki for chronic fatigue syndrome.

Some practitioners and patients say they've seen results from Reiki for both conditions. As with Bowen treatments, risk is low but price is something you'll want to consider before trying it.


2007 Cathy Wong, Alternative Medicine. All rights reserved. "Rolfing"

2007 Rolf Institute of Structural Integration. All rights reserved. "About Rolfing"

Ruth Werner, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. All rights reserved. "A Massage Therapist's Guide to Pathology, third edition"

June 2005, Julie Deardorff for The Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. "Massage therapy rubs sufferers the right way"

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