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Massage Therapy

Massage Therapy

Massage is an ancient technique that involves manual manipulation of muscles and soft tissues of the body. It increases circulation and promotes relaxation. Massage offers important emotional and psychological benefits as well.

Massage therapy is increasingly integrated in cancer programs and centers in the United States and elsewhere as an effective, nonpharmacologic means of symptom control. Preferably performed by licensed massage therapists who are also trained in working with cancer patients, massage provides safe and effective relief of many cancer symptoms. For cancer patients, foot massage (reflexology) or light-touch body massage typically is most appropriate. Massage relieves and loosens sore muscles. Therapeutic massage also increases circulation, stimulates venous and lymphatic drainage, improves muscle tissue metabolism and elasticity, and enhances relaxation through increased parasympathetic and reduced sympathetic nervous system activity.[1]

Massage is generally safe and is increasingly used to provide relief from physical and emotional symptoms of cancer and other illnesses. Patients suffering from cancer or any other major illness should consult a licensed massage therapist for treatment. Cancer patients should seek massage therapy from a practitioner with training in the care of patients with malignant disease.

—Barrie Cassileth, PhD

USES: To treat symptoms associated with cancer and cancer treatment, including pain, fatigue, nausea, depression, stress, and anxiety.

BACKGROUND: Massage therapy dates back thousands of years and involves manipulating, applying pressure, and rubbing or stroking soft tissue and skin to promote circulation, relaxation, and well-being. Particular techniques and degrees of pressure are used in each of the many types of massage therapy.

Swedish massage is the most common type used for the general public. It consists of five basic strokes and their variations. Sports and Shiatsu are types of deep-tissue massage. Reiki (very light touch therapy) involves the gentle brushing of hands over the body. Reflexology (massage of the feet, hands, or scalp) is especially useful for people who are frail or are recovering from surgery. Tuina emphasizes stimulation of acupuncture points and meridians, which is believed to ensure the proper flow of energy and blood to facilitate healing.

RESEARCH: In a randomized controlled trial, massage effectively reduced pain, nausea, fatigue, depression, stress, and anxiety associated with cancer treatments.[2] Preliminary data suggest that postoperative arm massage can decrease pain and discomfort following lymph node dissection,[3] and a crossover trial showed that manual lymphatic drainage using specialized light rhythmic massage reduced lymphedema in breast cancer patients.[4]

Massage may have biologic advantages as well. Increased serotonin and dopamine and decreased stress hormone levels were found in breast cancer patients following massage therapy. Patients also reported reduced feelings of anxiety, depression, and anger.[5] Pre- and post massage therapy patient ratings of pain, fatigue, stress/anxiety, nausea, and depression were recorded for 1,290 patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Post-massage scores were reduced by approximately 50% for all symptoms.[6] All benefits were sustained in a subset of 74 patients followed for 48 hours.


1. Field TM: Massage therapy effects. Am Psychol 53:1270-1281, 1998.
2. Soden K et al: A randomized controlled trial of aromatherapy massage in a hospice setting. Palliat Med 18:87-92, 2004.
3. Forchuk C et al: Postoperative arm massage: A support for women with lymph node dissection. Cancer Nurs 27:25-33, 2004.
4. Williams AF et al: A randomized controlled crossover study of manual lymphatic drainage therapy in women with breast cancer-related lymphoedema. Eur J Cancer Care (Engl) 11:254-261, 2002.
5. Field T et al: Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. Int J Neurosci 115:1397-1413, 2005.
6. Cassileth BR, Vickers AJ: Massage therapy for symptom control: Outcome study at a major cancer center. J Pain Symptom Manage 28:244-249, 2004.

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