Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Can a massage cause a stroke?

Q: I have a deep muscle massage every month or so. After my sister had a stroke, I started worrying that my massages could loosen any plaque in my carotid arteries, which could make me have a stroke. Could this happen?

A: As you might have guessed, there aren’t any solid scientific data on this question. But there are a few things we do know that should put your mind at ease. Most atherosclerotic plaques are firmly bonded to the artery wall. It is rare for plaque to suddenly break free, travel through the circulation, and block an artery in the brain. It is far more common for small breaks in the surface of a plaque to cause fragile blood clots that can easily break free.

Can a massage break open a plaque, leading to a blood clot? That isn’t likely. The force of a vigorous massage doesn’t really compare with the constant pounding that plaque faces with each individual heartbeat, or with the increase in blood pressure that occurs when you get out of bed in the morning to brush your teeth. So when it comes to stroke, having a deep muscle massage should be fine.

One caution about massage. The carotid arteries, which run along either side of the neck, have nerve endings that respond to changes in blood pressure. Massaging these sensors can decrease the heart rate, sometimes enough to cause fainting. In some people, the sensors are so sensitive that merely tightening a necktie or turning the head can make them pass out. This is called carotid sinus hypersensitivity.

I know I’m not keen on the idea of someone wrapping his or her hands around my neck. You might want to ask your massage therapist to stay away from that part of your body. — Richard Lee, M.D.
Associate Editor, Harvard Heart Letter
This Question and Answer first appeared in the
January 2008 Harvard Heart Letter,
available at www.health.harvard.edu/heart
Copyright 2008 by Harvard University

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