Autoimmune Diseases and Holistic Bodywork: How to Find the Right Kind of Therapy

Updated: Mar 24, 2020

Recommended Bodywork for Autoimmune Disease—and Why!

Picking the right kind of bodywork can be confusing, in an atmosphere where chronic pain and autoimmune diseases are on the rise, and holistic therapies are growing to meet the need. The use of holistic and complimentary therapies is increasing in North America, and it seems there is no limit to the types of modalities to choose from. The ‘old standards’ now have every imaginable variation, with new modalities cropping up every day!

I’ve chosen the following forms of bodywork as excellent choices for people who have body pain and inflammation, as well as compromised immune and organ function, as each of these modalities addresses the immune system, the nervous system, and organ balance—in addition to pain relief and inflammation reduction.

Sometimes people who deal with chronic pain have heightened sensitivity, and react badly to more aggressive forms of body therapy. Also, for ease of arrival and departure, and for those who simply don’t like disrobing for bodywork, these modalities are performed while the client remains clothed. The exception here is Lymph Drainage, but the client can wear a two piece swimsuit or loose sports bra, and draping with sheets will keep you warm and covered.

Coming up are my top picks for clients whose bodies require a ‘gentler touch’, without compromising on big benefits. But first...

Some Guidelines on Finding the Right Therapy :

  • Give yourself permission to try several different modalities, and different practitioners. Not everyone will be compatible with your vision, even if you enjoy what they offer. Frame this as a search for a good ‘fit’, with a long term professional relationship in mind.

  • Remember that some modalities (just like some medications) take several sessions to discover how your body reacts. Give modalities like reflexology or lymph drainage several sessions before you decide. Ask your practitioner if they have a package rate of 3 or 6 to get you started (and likely save money!)

  • Like going to the gym, one session helps, but for long term benefits, you need to keep it up! Track your symptom changes in a journal at home, to find the magic scheduling formula for you. For chronic, long term conditions such as autoimmune diseases, you may find symptom relief for a few days to a few weeks. Eventually you’ll discover what works best for you—once a week, every ten days, or once a month.

  • Have your practitioner explain in detail what to expect in a session. Some, like lymph drainage or craniosacral sessions, may barely feel like anything in a session, but you’ll notice your symptoms changing. You’ll also need to know how long the session is, whether you’ll be lying on a massage table or sitting/reclining in a chair, and if there’s any special clothing requirements, like loose pants to expose feet and lower leg.

  • Make sure your practitioner takes notes. When ‘shopping’ for the right modality and trying a series of sessions, it’s helpful if you can refer back to the first session notes to see how far you’ve come!

The following bodywork modalities are gentle (or can be modified to be gentle), and they are complementary, which means they can be performed while you continue any other course of treatment that you are on, including medications or other therapies.

Foot or Hand Reflexology

The entire body is represented as a body map on the foot and hands, as reflex areas that can be pressed upon to influence the body’s workings. Reflexology promotes relaxation, circulation, and overall balance. But the big benefit here is that it addresses all the body parts and systems involved in autoimmune diseases—joints, connective tissues, the immune system, and all the organs and glands of the body—in every treatment. There are even specific points to reduce pain and inflammation. Your reflexologist can adjust the right pressure for your needs, favoring a lighter pressure in the beginning, to discover your comfort touch. Hand and foot reflexology are great for diabetes support, since it helps with neuropathy and restless leg symptoms by encouraging circulation to the extremities.

Face Reflexology

Like all forms of reflexology, the whole body is represented on the face as a reflex map. Unique to face reflexology, though, is the very light pressure used on the delicate skin of the face, and its ability to almost immediately elicit deep parasympathetic relaxation. People who have a heightened post-traumatic stress response react very favorably to the calming face reflexology session. It’s a wonderful testament to the ‘rest and repair’ qualities of reflexology. Since we know that stress increases the inflammation response, face reflexology counteracts this effect by turning off the stress response, and turning on soul-soothing relaxation.

Manual Lymph Drainage / Lymph Drainage Massage

As one of the most studied forms of bodywork, lymph drainage claims are strongly backed by evidence. Not only is this therapy directly linked with the workings of the immune system, boosting lymph flow and overall immune function, but it also has proven pain relief results, and is used in the treatment of chronic pain. Lymph drainage can reduce inflammation at joints, and keep tissues from becoming bogged down with fluid and swelling. It might not feel like much, since, when done properly, it barely feels like your practitioner is applying any pressure at all! But this therapy is soothing, relaxing, and effective! Make note: some contraindications exist for lymph drainage, and advanced lymph conditions may need advanced care.

Auricular Therapy / Ear Reflexology

The ear is a marvel. It’s the only body map microcosm that has: all the body points (for helping specific joints or organs), special points (for purposes of pain and inflammation relief), master points from Chinese medicine (to amplify the effectiveness of any session), plus emotional points (to help with mental and emotional health). Ears are loaded with helpful stuff! As a client, your session might be a full hour, involving some relaxation techniques and treatment of both ears, or you may have the option of a very short session, addressing only a few relevant points with pressure or with adhesive ear beads that you can wear home. Here’s a self-help hint during a flare-up, especially for swelling: massage, press or squeeze the outer rim of the ears several times, until they feel warm and tingly, to help reduce inflammation in the body.

Craniosacral Therapy / Craniosacral Reflexology

The craniosacral system is responsible for the movement of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) throughout the spinal cord and around the brain. What does that have to do with autoimmune disease? Like some of the other modalities, a craniosacral therapy/reflexology session is deeply relaxing, and extremely gentle. Practitioners use very little pressure to sense and correct movements of the musculoskeletal system, that indirectly affect the flow of CSF. Practitioners may also support a joint directly, in what is known as unwinding or spontaneous correction, by gently holding it and following small movements. This type of session is ideal for anyone who has experienced a past fall or head injury, and anyone who needs gentle joint and spine support. It’s also a great treatment to help with ‘brain fog’.


As a form of energy healing with its roots in Japan, Reiki involves either a very light touch with hands on the body in various positions, or a radiating ‘touch’ with hands off-the body, a few centimeters away in the energy field. This is ideal for anyone with recent injuries or surgeries that cannot be touched, because energy will flow across an air gap. It's also a great treatment for organs as each organ has a designated hand position. For joints, the Reiki practitioner will likely hold, cup, or sandwich the affected body part, during which time the client typically feels heat and comfort. Reiki is extremely gentle and nurturing. If you enjoy the more subtle energy practices, you’ll also like knowing that Reiki directly affects the chakras and the energy field.

Putting It All Together

No two people are alike, even if they do have the same diagnosis! Don’t be afraid to find the right formula for you: with correct medication, lifestyle and regular bodywork, an autoimmune disease doesn’t have to feel overwhelming. With a focus on improving all areas of health you have control over, you can look forward to managing your symptoms with a positive plan of action.

To read more about autoimmune diseases, read my blog "Autoimmune Disease: What It Means and How to Deal"

Disclosure Statement: This article may be freely printed or distributed in its entirety via social media, e-zine, newsletter, blog or website, with author's name and website links intact and included.

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