Massage Therapy and Cancer: What the Experts Say

In recent decades, medical experts have shown an increased interest in massage therapy research. As they dig deeper into the science of massage, researchers are finding benefits for people with all kinds of physical ailments. In people with cancer, massage therapy sessions can relieve pain, improve sleep, and increase immune function, among other things. While the benefits are vast, it is important to talk with a physician before seeking massage therapy as a complementary treatment.

Can Massage Therapy Relieve Cancer Symptoms?

During a three-year period, researchers at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center studied 1,290 cancer patients who received massage therapy sessions. They asked study participants to rate symptoms such as pain, nausea, stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue on a scale from 1-10 before and after treatment.

Massage therapy reduced cancer patients’ symptoms by roughly 50%. Outpatients saw 10% more improvement than inpatients and noticed no return of symptoms after a 48-hour follow-up. The researchers highlighted massage therapy’s substantial improvement of patients’ symptoms as well as the increasing popularity of massage therapy as a complementary cancer treatment.

Can Massage Therapy Help Cancer Patients Sleep Better?

Many people with cancer have difficulty getting enough quality sleep. In 2003, two Stanford psychiatrists researched the ways sleep quality affected patients’ hormonal balance and found sleep directly affects at least two cancer-fighting hormones. Sleep deprivation also causes the body to turn off more than 700 genes, including those that manage inflammation, immunity, stress, metabolism, and cancer.

In a recent study in Iran, researchers found massage therapists were able to help cancer patients improve their sleep quality. They recommended massage for people with cancer to get the healthy, healing sleep they need without having to rely on medication.

Should Breast Cancer Patients Get Massage Therapy?

Talk to your doctor about any adjustments you should make during your massage sessions. They may recommend a massage therapist with special training and knowledge about people with particular types of cancer, such as breast cancer. For example, it might be best to lie on your back during massages while you’re recovering from breast surgery. If your lymph nodes have been removed, ask your massage therapist to use a very light touch near the affected areas, including your arm and underarm area. If you have arm lymphedema, tell your massage therapist to avoid your arm altogether. Instead, get manual lymphatic drainage, a special type of massage for those with arm lymphedema.

If you are currently undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment, ask your therapist to use a light touch to avoid any possibility of bruising (which can put stress on an already weakened immune system). A light touch can also help if your skin is very sensitive due to these treatments. You might ask your massage therapist to massage you through clothing or a towel, avoid any temporary markings in the corners of your radiation treatment area, and leave the massage oils on the shelf as they have the potential to irritate sensitive skin.

Is Massage Appropriate for People with Advanced Cancer?

A University of Colorado Hospital study reviewed relevant data collected by many experts and determined massage was safe and beneficial for cancer patients. The study’s author recommended oncologists talk with their patients about massage therapy (when appropriate) to relieve stress, anxiety, and pain.

A research team at the Harvard Medical School determined metastatic (advanced stage) cancer patients who received two to three massage therapy sessions in their homes enjoyed a better quality of life that persisted for at least a week after treatment. These experts highlighted massage therapy’s potential to reduce pain and improve sleep quality.

At the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine, a team of researchers studied 380 adults with advanced cancer who experienced moderate/severe pain (90% of these people were in hospice care). Over a two-week period, they gave study participants either six 30-minute massage therapy sessions or just simple touch and attention.

The researchers found massage therapy improved patients’ mood and relieved their immediate pain. They pointed out that simply giving attention and gentle touch also had a therapeutic benefit.

In another study, researchers conducted a secondary analysis of the above study. After each treatment, massage therapists filled out six-page treatment forms. The secondary research team examined these documents and made some new findings.

The researchers found 93% of advanced cancer patients could turn over and achieve any position they desired for their massage treatments. About 77% of the time, massage therapists noted patients preferred to sit or lie on their backs during their sessions, and 10% of participants chose to lie face down or on their sides. Even people with late-stage cancer had the mobility to enjoy and benefit from massage therapy.

About 42% of cancer patients in this study showed signs of fatigue or weakness during massage therapy sessions, but only asked to stop early in 2% of cases. The study’s authors pointed out that the massage therapists they studied were trained to work with advanced-stage cancer patients. They knew how to use a gentle touch, deal with low-energy clients, and work around medical devices such as oxygen lines, and feeding tubes.

For those seeking a massage for relief from cancer symptoms, it may be most beneficial to find a massage therapist who has extensive experience in treating those with cancer.


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How Massage Therapy Helps Veterans and Trauma Survivors

Massage therapy has the potential to benefit people who have experienced any type of trauma. For veterans who are having trouble reacclimating to civilian life, massage therapy may help them let their guard down. Refugees, survivors of abuse, and accident victims may also benefit from the care and support that can come from massage therapy.

Many experts refer to the mental and physical repercussions of traumatic events as posttraumatic stress (PTSD). When people experience dramatic and intense stress, their bodies and minds may respond with PTSD symptoms. When they return to everyday life and routine activities, they often need help to turn off the coping mechanisms they may have developed in response to the trauma.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 10-20% of combat veterans experience PTSD in any given year. However, military personnel often describe a culture of self-repression that keeps them from reporting and working through their PTSD symptoms. Many soldiers want to be seen as strong and valuable members of their units, so they may not ask for help when they need it most.

PTSD is a common response to a traumatic event, not an indicator of weakness. More than 50% of Americans experience abuse, accidents, and assaults, or witness the injury or death of others. Roughly 4% of men and 10% of women will experience PTSD at some time in their lives. If you have PTSD, you’re not alone, and massage therapy may be an effective treatment option to help manage symptoms.

Effects of PTSD

If you’ve been through a major trauma and think you might have PTSD, talk with your physician immediately. Some effects of PTSD may include:

  • Hypervigilance– Veterans and others who have endured trauma may have trouble turning off the fight or flight response state. The brain can trigger powerful fear responses that make it difficult to trust others.
  • Insomnia – Many people with PTSD have trouble sleeping and may experience nightmares. They may feel agitated and unable to settle down.
  • Depression – People with PTSD commonly withdraw from others and may have thoughts of suicide. They may lose interest in activities they used to enjoy, and they might have changes in behavior.
  • Substance abuse – Studies of PTSD have shown high rates of substance abuse among those diagnosed with PTSD. For example, one study found as much as 80% of Vietnam veterans in treatment for PTSD abused alcohol and other drugs. However, increased acceptance of the diagnosis in recent decades has led to a decline in these numbers.
  • Emotional triggers – People who have experienced trauma may show extreme sensitivity to similar events or startle more easily than others. People with PTSD often display irritability, anger, and other outbursts of negative emotion.
  • Immune disorders – Those who experience trauma and find it hard to shut off their fight or flight response state often have an excess of cortisol in their systems. This stress hormone represses the immune system and prepares the fight or flight response, even when conditions are stable.

As researchers learn more about PTSD, they continue to point out the usefulness of massage for those who have been exposed to trauma. Massage therapists can help trauma survivors reset their fight or flight mechanisms, ease hypervigilance, and begin to move forward with their lives.

Massage as a Complementary Treatment for PTSD

Massage treatments typically work well in combination with other treatment methods such as psychotherapy.

For example, one study examined a group of 14 female veterans with PTSD who used prescription painkillers. Seven women received only standard treatments; the other seven underwent eight weeks of massage, inner-body awareness, and talk therapies. The women in the massage group experienced pain relief, relaxation, feelings of safety, and a new sense of trust.

One study participant pointed out how well her massage treatments complemented her inner-body awareness sessions. Regular massage therapy provided short-term relief from chronic pain and tension so she could address the underlying causes of the stress with other therapists.

Another study focused on the effects of massage therapy and other complementary treatments for survivors of refugee traumas, child abuse, torture, and other traumatic situations. They highlighted the effectiveness of massage for treating people with PTSD, depression, and chronic pain.

To explore the effects massage therapy could have on trauma survivors, Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center formed a wellness group for Somali refugee women. These women were exposed to the trauma of more than two decades of civil war and experienced lingering pain and psychological issues. Harborview Medical Center decided to offer a program of massage therapy and yoga to address the women’s chronic pain and emotional concerns. The program has grown in popularity as it continues to offer an option for pain relief and health education to Somali women in Seattle.

In another example of massage therapy’s effect on trauma, a team of German researchers interviewed a shiatsu massage therapist who treated soldiers who had returned home from conflict in Afghanistan, as well as children and young adults from war zones. The researchers learned massage therapy can treat the body/mind disassociation that often results from PTSD, unlock emotional energy, and maintain healthy relationships. Even those scarred by war and other traumas were able to recognize a healing connection between mind and body through massage.

If you think you or a loved one has PTSD, talk with your doctor immediately before seeking a massage. Massage therapy might be a beneficial complementary treatment to help ease symptoms.


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Can Massage Therapy Help with Chronic Pain Management?

Many people seek massage therapy for medical reasons. According to the American Massage Therapy Association’s 2014 and 2015 consumer surveys, 52% of people got massages for one of the following reasons:

  • To relieve and manage pain
  • To address spasms, soreness, and stiffness
  • To recover and rehabilitate from injuries
  • To stay fit and increase health and wellness
  • To ease discomfort during pregnancy

In 2015, 16% of American adults discussed massage therapy with their doctors and other health care providers, and about 69% of the time, their physicians and health care workers strongly recommended massage therapy and gave them a referral. Physicians were the most likely health care providers to recommend massage, but chiropractors, physical therapists, and mental health professionals also encouraged their patients to seek a massage therapist.

How Does Massage Provide Pain Relief After Injuries?

As the body of relevant research grows, more doctors recommend massage therapy to people in pain. Researchers from one study observed a group of young men with exercise-related injuries to their skeletal muscles. They knew massage therapy was linked to pain relief and wanted to uncover the mechanisms of this effect.

The researchers found massage therapy reduced stress on a cellular level, decreased inflammation, and increased mitochondrial biogenesis in these study participants. Mitochondria exist within cells, provide energy and respiration, and contribute to the healing of cellular injuries.

According to the study, massage reduced the pain of injuries in much the same way as anti-inflammatory drugs do. Massage therapy also has fewer potential side effects than prescription painkillers.

Can Massage Therapy Relieve Your Chronic Pain?

Lower back pain – According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers have found promising evidence that massage therapy can benefit people with lower back pain. Researchers at Canada’s Institute for Work and Health found acupressure was more effective for lower back pain than Swedish massage. Thai massage produced similar results to Swedish massage. The researchers recommended massage therapy in conjunction with exercises and relevant education.

Headaches – In a study of people who experience chronic tension headaches, researchers found massage therapy reduced the frequency and duration of these headaches. Even short 30-minute sessions could alleviate certain headaches, and the participants experienced significant reductions in headache frequency after only the first week of this eight-week study.

Arthritis knee pain – In a study of people who had knee pain from arthritis, researchers found massage therapy provided pain relief benefits for at least eight weeks after treatment. In a follow-up study, they determined weekly 60-minute massage sessions were the most effective, given their convenience, cost, and consistency.

Neck pain – In a study of 228 people living with chronic neck pain, a team of doctors found 60-minute massage sessions were more effective than 30-minute ones. They urged physicians to relate this information to their patients when recommending massage for neck pain.

Fibromyalgia – A researcher in Sweden found people with fibromyalgia who received massage therapy felt less pain up to six months after treatment. In this study of 48 patients, the researcher found 15 massage therapy treatments over a 10-week period relieved 37% of pain, relieved feelings of depression, and decreased study participants’ need for painkillers.

Cancer pain – Cancer patients have long turned to massage therapy for relief from pain related to cancer and cancer treatments. One research group found massage therapy is effective for short-term treatment of anxiety and depression in cancer patients. In their review of many previous studies, they highlighted one in which cancer patients experienced a 50% reduction in symptoms after receiving massage therapy.


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What Are ‘Knots’ in Muscles and How Do You Treat Them?

Many people with shoulder, neck, or back tension complain of “knots” in their muscles. But can muscles actually get knotted? Can massage therapy help in “unknotting” them?

When you put excess strain on your muscles and tendons, they can tear apart on a microscopic level. Research suggests about half of all athletic injuries involve overuse of certain musculoskeletal systems. When muscles and tendons are overused, they can become fragile. If your job requires repetitive tasks like typing on a computer or using construction equipment, take extra care with your muscle and tendon health.

Whether you strain yourself at work or play, a healing massage can encourage your body to regain healthy flexibility that can help avoid further injury.

Why Do I Get Knots in My Muscles?

Muscles can stick together and create knots because of inactivity, dehydration, and injury. If you regularly ask your body to endure these conditions, your muscles and tendons can become chronically inflexible. If your body can’t move easily, your posture will likely suffer, putting increased stress on your musculoskeletal system.

Once you start down this track, you’ll have to work hard to reverse bad posture and inflexibility. Scheduling regular massage therapy appointments can help you regain full range of motion, functionality, and stamina.

Your muscle fibers adhere to each other because the fascial (soft tissue) layers that surround and weave between them stick together. As your massage therapist rubs the muscles and soft tissues under your skin, this friction causes your fascial layers to let go of each other. Without this inflexibility, your muscles and tendons can regain their normal and healthy functionality.

How Can I Avoid Getting Muscle Knots?

  • Drink Plenty of Water – Try to avoid drinking sugary, caffeinated, and alcoholic drinks in excess. Switching to water instead can ensure your body is getting the hydration it needs.
  • Exercise Frequently – Work movement into your daily routine and your favorite activities. Play sports, hit the gym, walk around your neighborhood, take bicycle excursions, or climb the stairwells at your workplace.
  • Eat Healthy Food – Limit your intake of processed and fast food and instead consume healthier options. Give your cells and tissues the basic ingredients and components they need to maintain healthy function, heal damage, and grow stronger.
  • Switch It Up – When working on your computer and phone, be sure to switch postures and move around often. In the gym, give your body a wide variety of exercises. Avoid overuse injuries by working out a different muscle group each day. This variety gives your body ample time to heal and grow.
  • Reduce Stress and Anxiety – Regular massage therapy sessions can be a great way to manage mental and emotional health.
  • Revitalize Your Body with Healthy Sleep – Resting well every night allows your body to heal itself from everyday wear and tear. Many people get frequent massage therapy treatments to relieve insomnia symptoms and enjoy more energy during their waking hours.

How Can I Treat My Muscle Knots?

When you feel knots and cramps in your muscles, be sure to take a break from any activities that strain the affected areas. Move your body to loosen up in any way you can without experiencing additional pain. Stretch out the affected area, under the guidance of a certified bodyworker, yoga teacher, or physical therapist. Consult your physician if you feel extreme or chronic pain. If you do overwork your muscles or experience a repetitive strain injury, ask your doctor about including massage therapy in your treatment plan.

Many doctors, trainers, and coaches recommend massage therapy to their patients and clients because this treatment has few side effects or interactions with pharmaceuticals. Of course, it is best to consult a physician before getting massage therapy, especially if you have deep-vein thrombosis (blood clots). Physicians may recommend that people with certain cancers and skin conditions postpone massage therapy until these conditions improve; however, in many cases, massage treatments can provide pain relief and healing for some cancers and other conditions.

People with all kinds of health conditions, even chronic illnesses, might seek massage therapy to deal with muscle knots. Schedule frequent massage therapy sessions to facilitate soft-tissue healing from many types of injuries. Massage therapy helps millions of people treat pain, strain, and soft-tissue injuries, among other conditions.


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How Massage Therapy Can Treat Fibromyalgia Pain

Fibromyalgia—a musculoskeletal condition that affects 1-3% of the world population—distorts how the brain processes pain signals, causing widespread physical pain and tenderness. Medical researchers have shown massage therapy relieves pain in those who experience fibromyalgia and can help alleviate other symptoms of the condition.

What Is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia causes chronic pain throughout the body. People with the condition typically experience an increased sensitivity to pain, feel fatigued, and have difficulty sleeping. They may have trouble focusing, experience stiffness, and endure frequent tension headaches. Some people experience depression, headaches, spastic colon, and abdominal pain or cramping.

More than 7 million Americans have fibromyalgia, which typically affects more women than men. People with severe fibromyalgia may remain bedridden for days at a time from severe fatigue and other symptoms. Due to the lack of effective medical interventions for fibromyalgia, many people turn to complementary treatments such as massage therapy for healing and relief.

Massage therapy often outperforms the other chronic pain treatments people with fibromyalgia may try. For example, a research team from the University of Miami and the Duke University School of Medicine found study participants who received massage treatments fared better than those who had transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) and a control group who received a placebo TENS treatment. To treat chronic pain, physicians commonly apply electrical TENS pads to a patient’s skin to stimulate nerve centers. The researchers observed reductions in pain, fatigue, stiffness, and insomnia in the study participants who received massage therapy treatments.

Do I Have Fibromyalgia?

If you feel widespread pain (such as a dull ache) that persists for more than three months, talk with your doctor to see if your symptoms point to fibromyalgia. Be open to other diagnoses, as people can easily confuse fibromyalgia with other types of chronic pain, such as myofascial pain syndrome.

Though medical scientists have not yet found the cause of fibromyalgia, your physician can give you a specific diagnosis for the condition. Fibromyalgia usually affects 18 specific body areas, and people who have the condition typically only experience pain in these particular “tender points,” which are widespread throughout both sides of the body.

People with fibromyalgia also have unique sleep difficulties. Though they may frequently wake up due to their pain, they can sleep for long periods of time due to intense fatigue. They often still feel fatigued upon waking as well as throughout the day.

Massage therapy has the potential to ease many fibromyalgia symptoms, including sleep difficulties. A recent examined 74 people with fibromyalgia. The study participants who received massage therapy instead of a placebo had less anxiety, slept better, experienced greater pain relief, and reported a better quality of life. Participants continued to experience the benefits of massage therapy for as long as a month after treatment and reported better sleep quality as many as six months later.

Why Is Fibromyalgia Hard to Treat?

Doctors have yet to determine an exact cause of fibromyalgia, making it a difficult condition to diagnose and treat. They can test for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as other causes of chronic pain, but there is no specific test for fibromyalgia. A blood test can identify blood cell markers in people with fibromyalgia, but the test by itself may not lead to a fibromyalgia diagnosis.

Experts believe some events (such as stressors, traumas, hormone changes, or certain chemicals) can trigger the abnormal amounts and behaviors of certain neurotransmitters associated with fibromyalgia. For example, people with fibromyalgia often experience reduced serotonin levels (and likely clinical depression).

Physicians believe fibromyalgia starts in the brain and then manifests in the body as a low-grade inflammation of fascia, other connective tissues, and muscle fibers. Fascia and related tissues surround muscles and run throughout the body. They determine how much muscles can contract and stretch and provide space for nerves and blood vessels. People with fibromyalgia often experience extreme muscular tension, which can compress muscles, restrict blood flow, and block nervous system pathways.

Can Massage Therapy Treat Fibromyalgia?

Massage therapy holds many benefits for people with fibromyalgia. In a 2015 review of 10 research studies on massage therapy and fibromyalgia, a research team found massage helped people reduce pain, anxiety, and depression related to the condition. People who received massages experienced high levels of pain relief and moderate amounts of emotional healing, which endured well beyond the end of the treatment period.

The researchers examined various types of massage therapy for fibromyalgia and found myofascial release improved stiffness, fatigue, and quality of life. For these symptoms, manual lymphatic drainage techniques and shiatsu massage produced more results than connective tissue massage and Swedish massage.

Another researcher noted the short- and long-term benefits of massage therapy for people with fibromyalgia, recommending one to two gentle, painless massage treatments per week with gradual increases in intensity (depending on the severity of the person’s condition).

Scientists continue to examine the mechanisms of massage therapy and the root causes of fibromyalgia. Research shows massage therapy helps people with chronic pain, as well as those recovering from injuries and surgery. People who receive regular massages sleep better, have less anxiety and depression, and experience improved range of motion. The benefits of massage therapy can lead to pain relief and better quality of life for many.


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