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Hands-On: How Massage Therapy Can Help People with Disabilities

By February 6, 2020No Comments4 min read

Adult Care Currents (a St. Ann Center publication)

Do you associate “massage” with stress relief or pro athletes? You’re not wrong! But have you considered massage therapy as a strategy to bring people with disabilities pain relief, better sleep and overall wellness, and to improve their quality of life?

Research continues to grow that MT can be a powerful resource for people dealing with conditions like:

•spinal cord injury
•cerebral palsy
•after-effects of a stroke
•post-op pain
•high blood pressure
•depression or anxiety
•lower back pain
•sleep disorders

Relief for an immobile body

Massage can do for an immobile body what it can’t for itself, notes Chanda Hinton Leichtle, who became a quadriplegic at age 9, and as an adult created the Colorado-based Chanda Plan Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for integrative therapy such as massage to improve health outcomes and reduce healthcare costs for people with disabilities.

The foundation reports its own data show this approach can reduce pain by a third, and drug use and medical care visits by half. People also report greater independence, the foundation says, because these therapies allow them to function better on their own.

Local Advocates

Closer to home, the vice president of wellness at Milwaukee’s St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care is just as enthusiastic about bringing massage therapy to this often-overlooked population.

“If someone has a spinal cord injury and is unable to feel massage on their lower limbs, massage improves blood circulation and can prevent other medical problems,” says Sandy Anderson, one of three certified massage therapists at St. Ann Center. “I’ve had people tell me after a stroke, ‘Oh, you don’t need to massage my left side, I can’t feel that’ — and I tell them, “just because you can’t feel it doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial.’”

Also, she says, it can help people with severe contracture, such as cerebral palsy can cause, relax briefly before they contract again – and there’s relief in that respite. “Everyone with CP needs massage,” she says.

But people with disabilities can face challenges in finding a therapist experienced in using adaptive techniques– or an accessible location.


The portable headrest unit allows a massage therapist to work on the client’s upper body without having to transfer the client from the wheelchair to the table.

Massage therapy school classes typically cover adaptive techniques on a limited basis, Anderson says; a therapist may accept clients with disabilities only after trying massage on a relative or friend with a disability.

For more than 20 years, St. Ann Center has offered a variety of massage techniques to its adult day clients – frail elders, those with dementia and adults of all ages with cognitive or physical disabilities. But community members of all abilities are welcome to book appointments, too, and Anderson says they are often thrilled to hear the center has elevators and is accessible throughout.

The therapists are prepared with adaptive equipment to meet each individual’s needs: a high-low table, massage chairs, a portable headrest unit, an assortment of beveled foam wedges, stools of various sizes … plus their own ingenuity, experience in adaptive techniques and commitment to care. A client may need to communicate via an alphabet board, have a caregiver remain with them during the massage or be massaged right in their power or manual wheelchair – none of it fazes the team.

It’s worth checking with a healthcare provider to see whether regular massage could be covered as part of an overall treatment plan. Even when it’s not, though, people often find the non-pharmaceutical pain relief and improved quality of life well worth out-of-pocket payment.

In Milwaukee:
St. Ann Center massage therapists accept weekday appointments, at both campuses, at 2801 E. Morgan Ave. and 2450 W. North Ave., and Saturday morning appointments at the Morgan Avenue location. To learn more about the types of massage and costs, visit Or contact Sandy Anderson at (414) 977-5056 or Prices are comparable to those charged in commercial businesses, but all profits support the care of people most in need at the nonprofit organization.

Spa Massage on the Go massage therapists travel throughout the metropolitan Milwaukee area to provide massage therapy in homes or other locations, accepting Monday-Friday appointments. To learn more, call (844) 216-9068, email, or visit

Learn more about MT for People with Disabilities: Chanda Plan Foundation

Adult Care Currents, published by St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, focuses on a different topic related to adult care in each issue, and is of special interest to social workers, case managers, special education professionals and others who work in adult care in the Milwaukee area.  Past topics have included the benefits of warm water pools, how to start an intergenerational program, and how to reach clients who have little or no verbal ability.

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