Integrative Oncology: Complementary Therapies in Cancer Care

Barrie Cassileth; Marjet Heitzer; Jyothirmai Gubili


Cancer Chemother Rev. 2008;3(4):204-211. 

In This Article

Massage Therapy

Massage has long been used to reduce tension, anxiety, and pain in various populations including cancer patients. Surveys indicate that over 20% of cancer patients use massage therapy.[4,5] Through the application of pressure and motion to the muscle and connective tissues of the body, massage therapy elicits both physiological and psychological responses.

In a study involving breast cancer patients, massage therapy was shown to reduce depression, anger, and pain.[6,7] In patients undergoing bone marrow transplantation, reductions in diastolic blood pressure, distress, nausea, and anxiety were detected immediately after receiving upper body massage.[8] Furthermore, massage therapy reduced central nervous system/neurologic complications, which include anxiety, depression, and fatigue, in patients following bone marrow transplantation compared to those receiving therapeutic touch or friendly visits.[9] Data from another study indicate that massage therapy and light therapeutic touch (without deep tissue stimulation) reduced fatigue and pain, resulting in decreased four-week nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory use and improved mood in cancer patients. Improvements were also reported in blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate.[10]

Although most studies have reported the effects of massage in adult patients, pediatric cancer patients also experienced reduced pain after massage therapy.[11] Massage is one of the most commonly used pain management strategies for pediatric patients newly diagnosed with leukemia.[12]

In addition to massage, foot reflexology offers beneficial effects such as reductions in pain, anxiety, and nausea in cancer patients.[13] Reflexology teaching protocols have been successfully administered to caregivers, and subsequent relief in pain intensity and anxiety has been reported in metastatic cancer patients.[14]

Most types of massage (i.e. Swedish, light touch, and foot) result in various levels of symptom relief for patients; however, those receiving Swedish or light touch massages reported a significantly greater reduction in symptoms compared to those receiving foot massages and the beneficial effects persisted for up to 48 hours.[15]

Although the mechanism by which massage induces symptom relief is not fully known, increased dopamine and serotonin along with decreased cortisol levels have been reported following massage.[7,16] In addition, there was an increase in natural killer cells and lymphocyte levels in breast cancer patients following massage therapy.[6] However, conflicting results were reported in a recent study.[17] It is possible that many factors including location of massage, massage intensity, or psychological impact of surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation may impact the efficacy of massage therapy.


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