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Case Studies of the Medical Benefits of Massage Therapy

Overview: Massage Therapy

Although massage therapy is seen by many as belonging to the fringes of therapeutic practice, many health care professionals and researchers have taken an interest in its potential use for stress relief, pain relief, psychological health, and even immune function. Blood, saliva, and immune cell samples in addition to metrics such as heart rate and blood pressure have been used to assess and confirm the physiological effectiveness of massage therapies. Similarly, questionnaires about general happiness and relaxation have confirmed the psychological benefits of massages.


Some of the known physiological benefits of massage therapies include decreased blood pressure and heart rate and increased expression of a class of immune cells called natural killer — or NK — cells involved in the rejection of tumors and cells infected by viruses. On other hand, psychological benefits may include a reduction of feelings such as anxiety and depression and an increased sense of relaxation.


Western scientific and therapeutic practice has only recently begun to examine the benefits of massage therapy in detail. The following is an overview of recent important studies of the benefits of massage therapy in several different areas of health science.


Cancer Levels and Massage Therapy

The Effect of Massage on Immune Function and Stress in Women with Breast Cancer–a Randomized Controlled Trial.

By A. Billhult, C. Lindholm, R. Gunnarsson, and E. Stener-Victorin

Massage therapy has been used throughout history for its physical and psychological health benefits, but the precise reason for these benefits have not been well classified. This study, conducted at the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology/Physiotherapy at the Sahlgrenska Academy at Göteborg University in Göteborg, Sweden, examined the effects of massage therapy on the “number and activity of peripheral blood natural killer (NK) cells in patients with breast cancer compared to a control group.” NK cells are immune system cells that attack tumors. The study concluded that a single full-body massage results in a short-term effect in NK cell activity, but did not examine possible long-term effects.


Massage and Sex Abuse

Effects of Sexual Abuse are Lessened by Massage Therapy

By Tiffany Field, Maria Hernandez-Reif, Sybil Hart, Olga Quintino, Levelle A. Drose, Tory Field, Cynthia Kuhn, Saul Schanberg

Women who experience sexual abuse often suffer from increased depression and anxiety that can have a deleterious effect on their day-to-day lives. Women who had experienced sexual abuse were given thirty-minute massages twice per week. After each massage, they reported decreased stress and depression and after a month they reported an overall reduction in depression and in stress associated with life events.

Body Therapy and Massage Aid in Childhood Sexual Abuse Recovery

By Cynthia Prince

Common long-term symptoms of childhood sexual abuse include dissociation and lack of physical self-awareness. Two massage therapists and two body-awareness therapists worked to assess the effectiveness of “body-oriented therapy” – a combination of body-oriented therapeutic massages – verbal discussions, and focus exercises. Twenty-four adult female victims of child sexual abuse were split into two groups, one receiving body-oriented therapy and one receiving more typical psychotherapy. Questionnaires indicated that both groups experienced similar improvement, though “their answers to open-ended questions revealed that the groups differed on perceived experience of the intervention and its influence on their recovery.”


Massage and Carpal Tunnel

Comparison of a Targeted and General Massage Protocol on Strength, Function, and Symptoms Associated with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: A Randomized Pilot Study

By Albert Moraska, Clint Chandler, Amanda Edmiston-Schaetzel, Gaye Franklin, Elain L. Calenda, Brian Enebo

Largely owing to the widespread use of computers for both recreation and work, carpal tunnel syndrome is a substantial issue in public health that entails a substantial amount of pain and expense for patients. The purpose of this study was to assess the effectiveness of two different types of massage therapy in the treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome. Subjects were randomly assigned to receive a twice-weekly general or carpal tunnel syndrome-targeted massage twice per week for six weeks. Both types of massages resulted in improvement in measures related to carpal tunnel system, and patients who received the target massage demonstrated a substantial improvement in grip strength. The study concluded that more research is necessary to assess the effectiveness of massage therapies for compression neuropathies.


Massage Therapy, Chronic Pain, and Recovery from Surgery

Family Caregiver Provided Massage for Rural-Dwelling Chronically Ill Persons

By Diane Kempson, Virginia Conley

Chronic illness can be highly burdensome for family caregivers. This University of Wyoming-Laramie study examined the possibility that teaching caregivers to give therapeutic massages could assuage their feelings of vulnerability and helplessness. The study found that family caregivers could “learn and provide gentle massage to their chronically ill loved ones” and “realize benefits from providing the massage.” Caregiver comfort and stability is highly important as more and more chronically- ill individuals come to rely on home care from family members, and therapeutic massage is a way in which such care givers can feel more useful and helpful to their chronically-ill family members.

Massage as Adjuvant Therapy in the Management of Acute Postoperative Pain: A Preliminary Study in Men

By Marcia Piotrowski, Cynthia Paterson, Allison Mitchinson, Hyungjin Kim, Marvin Kirsch, Daniel Hinshaw

Acute pain is nearly ubiquitous after major surgeries and pain medications cannot fully address the many problems of pain management. This study, conducted through the collaboration of several different departments at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, aimed to compare the efficacy of massage therapy compared to focused attention and routine care for post-operative pain relief. For seven days after an operation, a subset of subjects each received one of these interventions twice each day. The study indicated that massage decreased the “unpleasantness” of postoperative pain, though the decline in pain intensity associated with massage therapy was not statistically significant. The study indicated that, overall, massage therapy may be useful for addressing postoperative pain.

Massage Therapy: A Comfort Intervention for Cardiac Surgery Patients

By Patricia Anderson, Susanne Cutshall

Though massage therapies have been used for relieving anxiety and pain, their effectiveness has not been rigorously examined in many specific therapeutic areas. This study examines the “benefits of massage in the reduction of pain, anxiety, and tension in cardiac surgical patients.” It also closely examines the case history of a specific patient who received massage therapy after cardiac surgery.


Academic Stress

Immunological Effects of Massage Therapy during Academic Stress

In addition to psychological issues such as depression and anxiety, stress can also lead to immune system suppression. Students are a major at-risk group for both the psychological and physiological effects of stress because of the competitive and demanding environments of many academic institutions. This study examines the effects of massage therapy on medical students with a particular focus on changes in the immune system. Students reported a general decrease in anxiety after the massages. The researchers also noted a substantial increase in natural killer cell activity, or NCKA, an important immune system component. This increase, however, was not well-correlated with a decrease in the subjects’ subjective experiences of stress, so the origin of the increase is uncertain.