The Power of Touch for ALS


Thanks to the viral Ice Bucket Challenge, ALS awareness is stronger than ever and millions of dollars have been raised for research.

According to the ALS Association: "Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as 'Lou Gehrig's Disease,' is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their death."

AMTA member Dolly Wallace explains how massage therapy may be beneficial to those with ALS, and what clients and massage therapists should expect.

The Benefits of Massage

In addition to easing pain, massage therapy may help increase mobility, minimize muscle pain and cramping, increase circulation and reduce anxiety. Massage can help the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of ALS clients.

Oftentimes, those with debilitating diseases do not receive enough touch as family and friends see them as fragile and are afraid of hurting them. Trained massage therapists can offer caring touch.

Working With ALS Clients

The two most recent ALS clients I worked with were near end of life. They both experienced muscle weakness and paralysis of the limbs, limited speech and difficulty swallowing and breathing.

I worked with each of them in their own home, and the length and frequency of the massage session was determined by their individual tolerance. I primarily worked on their legs, arms, feet, hands and scalp. I lightly stretched the muscles to relieve cramps and stiffness. I used mild passive range of motion to lubricate the joints. I would carefully massage the hands, working to open up the palms. The techniques, areas of focus and length of session would change—each visit was customized to what the client’s needs were that specific day.

The clients reported massage reduced their discomfort, allowed them to sleep better and helped their breathing. The benefits were not long-lasting, but definitely offered relief and helped minimize pain and suffering.

What should someone with ALS consider when getting a massage?

  • Those with ALS (or any health condition) should check with their physician before beginning massage therapy.
  • Search for a qualified massage therapist at FindaMassageTherapist.org and ask if they have experience with your specific condition.
  • Talk to your massage therapist about what you hope to achieve with massage, and together determine the level of care that you are physically able to receive.
  • Communication is vital—always let your massage therapist know what your expectations are, and communicate if you are uncomfortable at any point during the massage.

What should massage therapists know about working with ALS clients?

Working with clients who experience chronic pain isn’t for everyone. We need to be well-trained in pain management and be empathetic rather than sympathetic. Always ask for feedback from your clients throughout the entire session. Some of your clients may no longer be able to speak, so have a plan to communicate with them. A smile, a nod of the head, a tear of joy and relief rolling down their cheek at the end of a session is so very gratifying.

Find a Trusted Massage Therapist

Members of the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) are the most trusted massage therapists in the United States.


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