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Massage for Anxiety and Pain

May 5, 2009 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

Massage is a dramatically under utilized healing modality. Maybe it’s just hard to imagine that something that feels so good can actually provoke tangible benefits in the body and mind. There is also the common perception that a massage is an indulgence. Given the current economic climate, the likelihood of “indulging” in such a treatment becomes even more remote.

The reality is that therapeutic massage provides very real and quantifiable health effects that help us live happier and healthier lives. In addition, it can offer a viable alternative or synergistic support to conventional treatments. The issue of cost can also be managed by strategically using your health insurance and/or engaging in home based, amateur massage with a trusted partner.

Reflexology Chart

One of the most promising areas of massage research is in relation to reducing anxiety levels and improving mood. Several studies published this year offer solid validation for that claim.

  • In the May 2009 issue of the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, a trial involving 8 patients with GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) found that massage therapy allowed these patients to gain control of anxious feelings. The patients described experiencing relaxation of both body and mind, a decrease in anxiety and an improvement in self-confidence. (1)
  • A March 2009 study provides a model for how we can apply home massage to improve mental health. The parents of 17 young patients with SCD (sickle cell disease) were trained to perform a nightly massage on their children. The parents were provided with basic training and periodic supervision. This practice of massage therapy resulted in a several positive changes in the SCD children: a decrease in anxiety, depression, pain and a greater ability to function normally. (2)
  • Other positive psychological changes often accompany the reduction in anxiety. For instance, a Swedish study of severely ill patients found two key psychological benefits to massage: a) a feeling of being “released from an illness for a while” and; b) deep satisfaction resulting from the perception of “thoughtful attention”. (3)
  • Another interesting finding is that these effects may extend beyond the individual being massaged. A recent trial involved a group of depressed pregnant women who received twice weekly massage from their partners (starting at week 20 and extending until the end of their pregnancy). The women described improvements in back and leg pain and lower levels of anger, anxiety and depression. What fascinated me the most was that the partners also reported an improvement in mood. As a result, their overall relationship scores improved, as measured by a “relationship questionnaire”. (4)
  • Even brief exposure to massage can immediately transform your internal make-up and state of mind. This is illustrated in a study conducted at Kyushu University in Japan. 32 healthy women were given a 45 minute facial massage. Various tests were administered prior to the facial and afterward. The volunteers demonstrated a reduction in psychological distress directly after the massage, indicating a very quick response time. (5)

One area of scientific interest is potential of massage therapy for those receiving conventional cancer treatment. A brand new study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine examined the effects of therapeutic massage in a group of women with breast cancer. The women received a 30 minute massage once weekly for three consecutive weeks. A wide range of benefits were reported including less anxiety, better sleep quality and an improvement in everyday function and overall quality of life. Some of the volunteers also mentioned fewer instances of nausea and decreases in pain and distress. (6)

These findings are supported by a new scientific review on the use of massage in cancer patients. A total of 14 trials were included in the assessment. The authors concluded that massage may be helpful in alleviating fatigue, mood-related issues, nausea and pain. The current state of evidence was considered “encouraging” but preliminary. (7) The same basic position was presented in a German summary paper as well. (8) It’s important to remember that all cancer patients should consult their physicians prior to starting a course of massage therapy. There may be certain cases where it’s not appropriate.

The issue of pain often comes up when examining the science of massage. There is little doubt that massage feels good. But beyond that, it does appear that it can also help manage long-term pain conditions. As an example, a recent trial conducted on 25 fibromyalgia patients found that “connective tissue massage” brought about significant reductions in pain intensity, “pain pressure threshold” and health-related quality of life. The women in the study received five treatments a week for a three week period. (9)

Massage and Mood in Pregnancy

EPDS = Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS)

It’s also reassuring to know that various forms of massage appear to be effective. I personally enjoy reflexology, a foot massage that stimulates specific points on the soles of the feet that supposedly correspond to organs and systems in the body. (10) In February 2009, a 6 week study provided evidence that reflexology could benefit those with (MS) multiple sclerosis by reducing anxiety and stress hormone levels. I’ve also tried shiatsu. A review from October of 2008 followed a group of over 600 shiatsu patients. The researchers found that almost 80% of the people engaging in regular shiatsu made other positive changes in their health-related lifestyle. A 16-22% reduction in conventional medicine and a 15-34% decline in medication use were also noted. (11)

Finally, I’d like to add that giving a massage is a really good work out! It not only strengthens muscles, but also helps one become better attuned to the human body and gain a level of sensitivity that might not otherwise be attained.

Note: Please check out the “Comments & Updates” section of this blog – at the bottom of the page. You can find the latest research about this topic there!

Be well!


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Posted in Alternative Therapies, Mental Health, Women's Health

6 Comments & Updates to “Massage for Anxiety and Pain”

  1. Stuart Says:

    This topic (reflexology) has not been posted to my MS Blog and also posted to our website – on the website, it can be found in our resource links section under alternative therapies. – My thanks to you, for publishing this information.

    Best Regards – Stuart Schlossman

  2. Phil the anxiety helper Says:

    Great information. Massages relaxes your muscles and even your mind. I would definitely use this reflexology chart for therapeutic massage.

  3. JP Says:

    Thanks, Stuart and Phil!

    Be well!


  4. oprina Says:

    The art of massage as a therapeutic practice is as old as civilization and I consider it to be a form of alternative medicine (although it is not incompatible with modern Western medical practices). After a hard day there is no better way to relax then a long and soothing massage.

  5. JP Says:

    Update 05/18/15:


    Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice – May 11, 2015

    A Pilot Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) investigating the effectiveness of reflexology for managing pregnancy low back and pelvic pain

    Many pregnant women with LBPP use pain medications to manage this pain, much of which is self-prescribed and potentially harmful. Therefore, there is a need to find effective nonpharmacological treatments for the condition. Reflexology has previously been shown to help nonspecific low back pain. Therefore; a pilot RCT was conducted investigating reflexology in the management of pregnancy-LBPP. 90 primiparous women were randomised to either usual care, a reflexology or footbath intervention. Primary outcome measures were; the Pain Visual Analogue Scale (VAS). 64 women completed the RCT; retention rates for the reflexology group were 80%, usual care group 83.33% and footbath group 50%. The reflexology group demonstrated a Clinically Important Change (CIC) in pain frequency (1.64cm). Results indicate it is feasible to conduct an RCT in this area, although a footbath is an unsuitable sham treatment. Reflexology may help manage pregnancy-LBPP; however a fully powered trial is needed to confirm this.

    Be well!


  6. JP Says:

    Update 07/14/15:


    Anesth Pain Med. 2015 Jun 22;5(3):e25085.

    The Effects of Topical Sesame (Sesamum indicum) Oil on Pain Severity and Amount of Received Non-Steroid Anti-Inflammatory Drugs in Patients With Upper or Lower Extremities Trauma.

    BACKGROUND: Most patients with trauma experience different levels of pain. Due to side effects as well as economic burden of drugs used for pain relief after trauma commonly, it is important to use low-cost methods independently or combined with drugs to alleviate pain.

    OBJECTIVES: Therefore, this study aimed to investigate the effects of topical sesame oil on pain severity and frequency of received NSAIDs of patients with trauma.

    PATIENTS AND METHODS: This randomized clinical trial study was conducted on 150 patients with upper or lower extremities trauma in Dezful Ganjavian Hospital, Ahvaz, Iran, in 2014. Data was collected by a researcher-made questionnaire and Visual Analogue Scale (VAS). Patients were divided into two groups of control (n = 75) and intervention (n = 75) randomly. In the intervention group, patients applied topical sesame oil beside the routine cares, while in the control group patients just received routine cares. Severity of pain and frequency of received NSAIDs was assessed in the first, third, seventh and tenth days after the intervention in the both groups. Data was analyzed by SPSS19 software using descriptive and analytic (Chi-square and independent sample t-test) statistical methods.

    RESULTS: Based on student sample t-test, there was a significant difference between intervention and control groups regarding the pain severity in the first (P = 0.06), third (P = 0.001), seventh (P = 0.001) and tenth (P = 0.001) days after the intervention. Besides, the frequency of received NSAIDs in the intervention group and the control group showed significant difference in four days after the intervention (for four days P = 0.001).

    CONCLUSIONS: Topical application of sesame oil could reduce pain severity and frequency of received NSAIDs in patients with upper or lower extremities trauma. Therefore, it is recommended to use this oil in complementary medicine for pain relief due to low cost, easy usage and lack of adverse effects.

    Be well!


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