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Alternative Option Numero Uno: Massage Therapy

Posted Feb 27 2012 10:33pm

I have been working as a massage therapist for over five years now, mostly in the sports and pain management field. It was my mother’s cancer metastasizing to her spine and the incredible amount of pain medications she was prescribed that led me to the world of massage. It was our goal as a family to provide alternative ways for her to relieve her pain. I am happy to say that by the time she passed away, she was off of a significant amount of her pain medication.

Sadly, there are several misconceptions about massage; massage is a luxury just like a mani-pedi or a facial (both of which I’m sure I could find a way to make medically relevant, or at least psychologically relevant, but I digress), or that massage is meant for lonely men in Thailand. Incorrect! Okay, not 100% incorrect, as massage can be relaxing and wonderful, and lonely dudes may take advantage of massage in Asia (and all over the world). However, several studies have been done on the benefits of massage. Miami School of Medicine even has The Touch Research Institute, dedicated to doing research on the importance of the human touch, while The Department of Veterans Affairs has been researching complementary and alternative therapies for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including massage.

Massage has literally been around for millennia; dating as far back as 3000 BC in India, Egypt and China. Japan adopted massage around 1000BC, while the West took notice around 700BC in Greece and finally expanded with the Romans in 100BC.

Although massage has been manipulated (pun intended) through the ages, and techniques improved, the basis of massage remains the same; manipulate muscles and connective tissue to improve lymph functions and blood flow. Some basic techniques include efflourage (long, slow strokes),petrissage (kneading of the tissue, usually deeper than efflourage), stretching and friction. These techniques combined can be beneficial on so many levels, and for countless ailments.

•           In the instance of lymphatic massage, or massage for edema, a very light efflourage is used to stimulate and move stagnant lymph up extremities to major lymph ducts and eventually processed by the body.

•           Individuals recovering from surgeries such as mastectomies, reconstructions, amputations or other instances that cause scaring will benefit from friction and cross-fiber work. These deep techniques have been known to help break down scar tissue, improve range of motion and expedite healing time. One client in particular had such a substantial amount of scar tissue built up from her mastectomy that she was unable to fully lift her arm. After only a few sessions of cross fiber work, she was able to comfortably dress herself; something she had been struggling with since her surgery.

•           Facilitated stretching is another fabulous technique used to improve range of motion. This active-assisted technique allows a therapist to take the client to their full stretch potential. Once in a full stretch, the client will isometrically contract their muscle for several second, relax, and repeat. The range of motion for the target muscle will increase as the individual continues the stretch.


Some interesting studies on massage and common caregiving issues:



Field, T., Ironson, G., Scafidi, F., Nawrocki, T.,Goncalves, A., Burman, I. , Pickens, J., Fox, N., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (1996). Massage therapy reduces anxiety and enhances EEG pattern of alertness and math computations. International Journal of Neuroscience, 86, 197-205.

Adults were given a chair massage, and control group adults were asked to relax in a chair for 15 minutes, two times a week for five weeks. Frontal delta power increased for both groups, suggesting relaxation. The massage group showed decreased alpha and beta power, and increased speed and accuracy on math computations. At the end of the five-week period depression scores were lower for both groups but job stress scores were only, for the massage group.


Hernandez-Reif, M., Field, T., Ironson, G., Beutler, J., Vera, Y., Hurley, J., Fletcher, M., Schanberg, S., Kuhn, C., & Fraser, M. (2005). Natural killer cells and lymphocytes increase in women with breast cancer following massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 115, 495-510

METHODS: Women diagnosed with breast cancer received massage therapy or practiced progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) for 30-minute sessions three times a week for 5-weeks or received standard treatment. The massage therapy and relaxation groups reported less depressed mood, anxiety and pain immediately after their first and last sessions. By the end of the study, however, only the massage therapy group reported being less depressed and less angry and having more vigor. Dopamine levels, Natural Killer cells and lymphocytes also increased from the first to the last day of the study for the massage therapy group.

Billhult, A., Lindholm, C., Gunnarsson, R., Stener-Victorin, E. (2009). The effect of massage on immune function and stress in women with breast cancer–a randomized controlled trial. Autonomic Neuroscience, 150, 111-115.

METHODS: Women, with breast cancer were assigned to a massage or an attention control group. RESULTS: Massage decreased the deterioration of NK cell activity occurring during radiation therapy and lowered heart rate and systolic blood pressure.


Field, T., Peck, M., Hernandez-Reif, M., Krugman, S., Burman, I., & Ozment-Schenck, L. (2000). Postburn itching, pain, and psychological symptoms are reduced with massage therapy. Journal of Burn Care & Rehabilitation, 21, 189-193.

METHODS: Twenty patients with burn injuries were randomly assigned to a massage therapy or a standard treatment control group during the remodeling phase of wound healing. The massage therapy group received a 30-minute massage with cocoa butter to a closed, moderate-sized scar tissue area twice a week for 5 weeks. RESULTS: The massage therapy group reported reduced itching, pain, and anxiety and improved mood immediately after the first and last therapy sessions, and their ratings on these measures improved from the first day to the last day of the study.



Grealish, L., Lomasney, A., & Whiteman, B. (2000). Foot massage. A nursing intervention to modify the distressing symptoms of pain and nausea in patients hospitalized with cancer. Cancer Nursing, 23, 237-243.METHODS: This article describes the findings of an empirical study on the use of foot massage as a nursing intervention in patients hospitalized with cancer. RESULTS: In a sample of 87 subjects, a 10-minute foot massage (5 minutes per foot) was found to reduce perceptions of pain, nausea, and relaxation when measured with a visual analog scale.


Field, T., Grizzle, N., Scafidi, F., & Schanberg, S. (1996). Massage and relaxation therapies’ effects on depressed adolescent mothers. Adolescence, 31, 903-911.

METHODS: Thirty-two depressed adolescent mothers received ten 30-minute sessions of massage therapy or relaxation therapy over a five-week period. Subjects were randomly assigned to each group. RESULTS: Although both groups reported lower anxiety following their first and last therapy sessions, only the massage therapy group showed behavioral and stress hormone changes including a decrease in anxious behavior, pulse, and salivary cortisol levels. A decrease in urine cortisol levels suggested lower stress following the five-week period for the massage therapy group.



Ironson, G., Field, T., Scafidi, F., Hashimoto, M., Kumar, M., Kumar, A., Price, A., Goncalves, A., Burman, I., Tetenman, C., Patarca, R., & Fletcher, M. A. (1996). Massage therapy is associated with enhancement of the immune system’s cytotoxic capacity. International Journal of Neuroscience, 84, 205-217.

METHODS: Twenty-nine gay men (20 HIV+, 9 HIV-) received daily massages for one month. A subset of 11 of the HIV+ subjects served as a within subjects control group (one month with and without massages). RESULTS: Major immune findings for the effects of the month of massage included a significant increase in Natural Killer Cell number, Natural Killer Cell Activity, and CD8. No changes occurred in HIV disease progression markers. Neuroendocrine findings measured via 24 hour urine sample included a decrease in cortisol and trends toward decreased catecholamines. Decreased anxiety and increased relaxation were significantly correlated with increased NK cell number.



Meek, S. S. (1993).Effects of slow stroke back massage on relaxation in hospice clients. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 25, 17-21.

METHODS: Slow stroke back massage was provided for 30 hospice patients. RESULTS: The massage was associated with decreases in systolic BP, diastolic BP, and heart rate and with an increase in skin temperature.



Field, T., Cullen, C., Diego, M., Hernandez-Reif, M., Sprinz, P., Beebe, K., Kissel, B., & Bango-Sanchez, V. (2001). Leukemia immune changes following massage therapy. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 5, 271-274.

METHODS: Twenty children with leukemia were provided with daily massage therapy by their parents and were compared to a standard treatment control group. RESULTS: Following a month of massage therapy, depressed mood decreased in the children’s parents, and the children’s white blood cell and neutrophil counts decreased.


Multiple Sclerosis

Hernandez-Reif, M., Field, T., & Theakston, H. (1998). Multiple sclerosis patients benefit from massage therapy. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 2, 168-174.

METHODS: Twenty-four adults with multiple sclerosis were randomly assigned to a standard medical treatment control group or a massage therapy group that received 45-minute massages twice a week for 5 weeks. RESULTS: The massage group had lower anxiety and less depressed mood immediately following the massage sessions, and by the end of the study they had improved self-esteem, better body image and image of disease progression, and enhanced social functioning.

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