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Massage Therapy

Massage Therapy

Common Names

  • Swedish massage
  • Reiki
  • Reflexology
  • Myofascial release
  • Neuromuscular therapy
  • Shiatsu
  • Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD)

For Patients & Caregivers

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Massage is effective in reducing symptoms associated with cancer such as pain and anxiety. It can also improve shortness of breath, fatigue, and sleep quality, and be helpful for constipation and phantom pain.

Massage helps reduce muscle soreness, stiffness, and spasms. It also promotes relaxation and improves circulation, processes that can support recovery and healing. There are many styles of massage including Swedish, reflexology, reiki, neuromuscular therapy, myofascial release, shiatsu, tui na, and manual lymphatic drainage, or MLD.

Swedish massage is the most common and consists of five basic strokes. Reflexology involves massaging specific areas on the hands or feet that correspond to other parts of the body. Reiki promotes the healing of physical and emotional ailments through gentle touch. Neuromuscular therapy uses pressure and friction to relieve areas of strain or trigger points. Myofascial release uses gentle sustained pressure to connective tissue to release muscular tightness and soreness. Shiatsu and tui na are techniques that started in Asia. They are used to stimulate energy and blood flow in acupuncture points and channels. MLD uses a light rhythmic technique that encourages the natural movement of lymph fluid throughout the body. 

Clinical trials have shown that massage therapy helps reduce pain, anxiety, fatigue, and shortness of breath in cancer patients. It can ease the mind, improve sleep, reduce depression, and provide comfort to patients. It may also help children and caregivers. In addition, studies suggest that massage can reduce pain and anxiety related to medical procedures, including surgery. Certain types of massage, such as reflexology, are better suited for hospital or clinic settings, or in weak and elderly patients.

Massage is increasingly used with standard therapies for patients suffering from cancer and other diseases. However, patients should speak with their doctor and see a qualified massage therapist who understands their condition for treatment.

The Integrative Medicine Service at MSK offers many of these therapies to support the recovery and wellbeing of cancer patients.

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  • Pain
    Several studies show massage can ease pain and can reduce use of pain medications.
  • Anxiety
    Studies have shown that massage can reduce anxiety, including anxiety related to medical procedures. This can also lead to improved mood and sleep.
  • Cancer-related symptoms
    Several clinical trials support use of massage in reducing pain, fatigue, anxiety, and other mood disturbances associated with cancer and its treatment. It can also improve shortness of breath and sleep quality.
  • Arthritis of the knee
    Massage helps relieve symptoms of arthritis.
  • Lower blood pressure
    Massage therapy may help to lower blood pressure and other measures such as heart rate.
  • Headache
    Massage helps relieve headaches.
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Abdominal massage should be avoided if:

  • You have tumor involvement in abdominal areas.
  • You received recent abdominal radiotherapy and surgery.
  • You had placement of an underlying device in the liver called a hepatic infusion pump to deliver chemotherapy.
  • You had placement of a drain or device called a wound vacuum that assists in wound healing.
  • You have suspected abdominal obstructions, intestinal inflammation, or irritable bowel syndrome.
  • You are pregnant.

In these cases, therapists should use other types of massage, such as reflexology on the hands, feet, or ears.

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Massage is generally safe when provided by a qualified massage therapist.

Case report (rare)
Bowel bleeding after abdominal massage: In a patient who had taken blood thinners for a long time. This can be a side effect of blood thinners, but the event may have been triggered by the massage.

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  • Reflexology can be applied on the ear as well as hands and feet, and is often used for nausea, constipation, and nerve pain, and in hospital settings.
  • Massage can be helpful for constipation and phantom pain.
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For Healthcare Professionals

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Massage is an ancient technique that involves manual manipulation of muscles and soft tissues of the body. It increases circulation and promotes relaxation. In addition, it has important emotional and psychological benefits. The various forms of massage that are commonly practiced include Swedish massage, reflexology, reiki, neuromuscular therapy, myofascial release, shiatsu, tui na, and manual lymphatic drainage, or MLD.

Swedish massage is the most common and consists of five basic strokes and their variations. Reflexology involves massaging reflex points on the hands, feet, or ears that correspond to particular regions in the body. It is utilized frequently and effectively for nausea, constipation, and peripheral neuropathy in the acute setting. Reiki promotes the healing of physical and emotional ailments through gentle touch. Shiatsu and tui na originated in Japan and China, and involve manual stimulation of acupuncture points and meridians to ensure proper flow of energy and blood to facilitate healing. Neuromuscular therapy uses pressure and friction to relieve areas of strain or trigger points. Myofascial release applies gentle sustained pressure to connective tissue to release muscular tightness and soreness. MLD uses a light rhythmic technique that encourages the natural movement of lymph fluid throughout the body.

In cancer patients, clinical studies show that massage can alleviate symptoms such as stress, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, pain, fatigue, and depression (1) (3) (7) (8) (9) (12), and reduce neurological complications (2). Swedish massage can relieve persistent fatigue in breast cancer survivors (40). Reflexology was also found to alleviate pain and nausea (4) and reduce anxiety (14) (15) (16), dyspnea, and fatigue in cancer patients (13). Both massage therapy alone and in combination with meditation appeared to help post-operative breast cancer patients (21). Gentle abdominal massage was found to improve depression, anxiety, wellbeing, and perceived abdominal bloating in cancer patients with malignant ascites (22). Preliminary data indicate that postoperative arm massage can decrease pain and discomfort after lymph node dissection (5). Manual lymphatic drainage reduced lymphedema (6) and prevented secondary lymphedema (10) in breast cancer patients.

Massage has also shown some benefits for pediatric cancer patients and caregivers. In a study of hospitalized adolescents with cancer, massage was well-received with trends towards increased nighttime and overall sleep (23). In family caregivers of patients with cancer, it reduced anxiety, cortisol levels, blood pressure, and pulse rate, and improved sleep quality (24).

Some studies show that massage and reflexology sessions have benefit and clinical utility, particularly for pain or anxiety associated with surgery and procedural interventions (20) (25) (26) (27) (28) (29) (30) (31).

Massage therapy is also effective in treating chronic back pain (11), osteoarthritis of the knee (17), neck pain (18), headaches (32), and to reduce blood pressure (19). Both aromatherapy massage and inhalation aromatherapy reduced anxiety and pain in burn patients (33). In HIV patients, massage improved pain, anxiety, and hyperventilation (34). Reflexology reduced anxiety, labor pain, and duration among first-time mothers (35).

Self-care massage has also been found to improve mental health and blood pressure (36) and reduce stress (37) in some populations.

Clinical trials are evaluating massage therapy for conditions such as peripheral neuropathy, preoperatively for breast surgery patients, and combined with music therapy for hospice patients. A trial is also underway to determine whether massage can facilitate stroke recovery (38).

Massage is generally safe and increasingly used as a complementary therapy to provide relief from certain symptoms of cancer and other illnesses. However, patients suffering from cancer, heart disease, or arthritis should consult a qualified massage therapist for treatment.

The Integrative Medicine Service at MSK offers many of these therapies to support the recovery and wellbeing of cancer patients.

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  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Cancer-related symptoms
  • Stress reduction
  • Headache
  • Pain
  • Arthritis
  • Blood pressure
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Avoid abdominal massage in:

  • Patients with tumor involvement in abdominal areas.
  • Patients who have received recent abdominal radiotherapy and surgery.
  • Patients who have had placement of underlying devices such as hepatic infusion pump or wound vacuum.
  • Those with suspected abdominal obstructions, intestinal inflammation, or irritable bowel syndrome (39).
  • Women who are pregnant.

In these cases, therapists should use alternate sites for massage.

Plus and Minus IconIcon showing a plus/minus toggle, indicating that the surrounding element can be opened and closed.

Massage is generally safe when provided by a qualified massage therapist.

Case report (rare)
Small bowel intramural hemorrhage secondary to anticoagulant therapy after abdominal massage: In a 68-year-old man on long-term warfarin therapy; presented to ER with persistent abdominal pain and vomiting, and no bowel movement since onset (39). Although the particular massage was not described, abdominal massage is more typically part of eastern massage modalities such as shiatsu and tui na and may vary in pressure and intensity.

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  1. Cassileth BR and Vickers AJ. Massage therapy for symptom control: outcome study at a major cancer center. J Pain Symptom Manage 2004; 28(3):244-249.

  2. Smith MC, et al. Outcomes of touch therapies during bone marrow transplant. Altern Ther Health Med 2003; 9(1):40-49.

  3. Forchuk C, et al. Postoperative arm massage: a support for women with lymph node dissection. Cancer Nurs 2004; 27(1):25-33.

  4. Listing M, Reisshauer A, Krohn M, et al. Massage therapy reduces physical discomfort and improves mood disturbances in women with breast cancer. Psychooncology. 2009 Dec;18(12):1290-9.

  5. Noto Y, Kitajima M, Kudo M, Okudera K, Hirota K. Leg massage therapy promotes psychological relaxation and reinforces the first-line host defense in cancer patients. J Anesth. 2010 Dec;24(6):827-31.

  6. Toth M, Marcantonio ER, Davis RB, et al. Massage Therapy for Patients with Metastatic Cancer: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial. J Altern Complement Med. 2013 Jan 31.

  7. Wyatt G, Sikorskii A, Rahbar MH, et al. Health-related quality-of-life outcomes: a reflexology trial with patients with advanced-stage breast cancer. Oncol Nurs Forum. 2012 Nov;39(6):568-77. doi: 10.1188/12.ONF.568-577.

  8. Sharp DM, Walker MB, Chaturvedi A, et al. A randomised, controlled trial of the psychological effects of reflexology in early breast cancer. Eur J Cancer. 2010 Jan;46(2):312-22. doi: 10.1016/j.ejca.2009.10.006.

  9. Stephenson NL, Swanson M, Dalton J, et al. Partner-delivered reflexology: effects on cancer pain and anxiety. Oncol Nurs Forum. 2007 Jan;34(1):127-32.

  10. Perlman AI, Ali A, Njike VY, et al. Massage therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee: a randomized dose-finding trial. PLoS One. 2012;7(2):e30248. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030248.

  11. Sherman KJ, Cook AJ, Wellman RD, et al. Five-week outcomes from a dosing trial of therapeutic massage for chronic neck pain. Ann Fam Med. 2014 Mar-Apr;12(2):112-20. doi: 10.1370/afm.1602.

  12. Givi M. Durability of effect of massage therapy on blood pressure. Int J Prev Med. 2013 May;4(5):511-6.

  13. Braun LA, Stanguts C, Casanelia L, et al. Massage therapy for cardiac surgery patients—a randomized trial. J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg. 2012 Dec;144(6):1453-9, 1459.e1. doi: 10.1016/j.jtcvs.2012.04.027.

  14. Wang TJ, Wang HM, Yang TS, et al. The effect of abdominal massage in reducing malignant ascites symptoms. Res Nurs Health. Feb 2015;38(1):51-59.

  15. Jacobs S, Mowbray C, Cates LM, et al. Pilot Study of Massage to Improve Sleep and Fatigue in Hospitalized Adolescents With Cancer. Pediatr Blood Cancer. May 2016;63(5):880-886.

  16. Khorsand A, Tadayonfar MA, Badiee S, et al. Evaluation of the Effect of Reflexology on Pain Control and Analgesic Consumption After Appendectomy. J Altern Complement Med. Dec 2015;21(12):774-780.

  17. Dreyer NE, Cutshall SM, Huebner M, et al. Effect of massage therapy on pain, anxiety, relaxation, and tension after colorectal surgery: A randomized study. Complement Ther Clin Pract. Aug 2015;21(3):154-159.

  18. Peng S, Ying B, Chen Y, et al. Effects of massage on the anxiety of patients receiving percutaneous coronary intervention. Psychiatr Danub. Mar 2015;27(1):44-49.

  19. Mobini-Bidgoli M, Taghadosi M, Gilasi H, et al. The effect of hand reflexology on anxiety in patients undergoing coronary angiography: A single-blind randomized controlled trial. Complement Ther Clin Pract. May 2017;27:31-36.

  20. Saatsaz S, Rezaei R, Alipour A, et al. Massage as adjuvant therapy in the management of post-cesarean pain and anxiety: A randomized clinical trial. Complement Ther Clin Pract. Aug 2016;24:92-98.

  21. Moghimi-Hanjani S, Mehdizadeh-Tourzani Z, Shoghi M. The Effect of Foot Reflexology on Anxiety, Pain, and Outcomes of the Labor in Primigravida Women. Acta Med Iran. Aug 2015;53(8):507-511.

  22. Lamas K, Hager C, Lindgren L, et al. Does touch massage facilitate recovery after stroke? A study protocol of a randomized controlled trial. BMC Complement Altern Med. Feb 04 2016;16:50.

  23. Chen HL, Wu CC, Lin AC. Small bowel intramural hematoma secondary to abdominal massage. Am J Emerg Med. Apr 2013;31(4):758.e753-754.

  24. Kinkead B, Schettler PJ, Larson ER, et al. Massage therapy decreases cancer-related fatigue: Results from a randomized early phase trial. Cancer. 2018 Feb 1;124(3):546-554. doi: 10.1002/cncr.31064.

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