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Massage Therapy

What is massage therapy?

Massage therapy is a type of complementary therapy that uses techniques of rubbing, pressing, and manipulating soft tissues of the body. Massage therapy can help reduce pain, discomfort, tension and stress. Patients as well as family caregivers may benefit from massage and have improved quality of life during cancer.

Types of massage

Massage involves the manipulation of the body's soft tissues through a variety of methods. It is usually performed with varying rate, rhythm, direction, and intensity. Massage may use other techniques such as aromatherapy or heat therapy.

Massage therapists usually specialize in one or more types of methods. There are many massage techniques. Some common types include:

  • Swedish massage is considered “traditional” massage. It involves long sliding, stroking, kneading, friction, or tapping movements.
  • Deep tissue massage is a full body massage to relieve muscle tension. It uses stronger, deeper pressure to address problems in muscles and connective tissue.
  • Shiatsu is a practice in which the therapist applies pressure to certain points on the body using fingers, thumbs, elbows, knees, and/or feet.
  • Neuromuscular therapy is a specialized type of massage where pressure is used on trigger points to relieve pain and improve function.
  • Reflexology is a type of acupressure massage using pressure applied to different points on the hands and feet.

Learn the difference between adult and pediatric massage therapy.

Benefits of massage

Potential benefits of massage during cancer include:

  • Stress relief
  • Better pain control
  • Reduced nausea and vomiting
  • Relaxation
  • Improved blood flow
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Improved sleep
  • Less fatigue and increased energy
  • Improved sense of well-being

When massage is provided as a complementary therapy, children may feel more empowered to cope with cancer. Caregivers may also benefit from having massage therapy.
Parents can also be taught how to provide certain types of massage to children. This may have additional benefits. Massage may help deepen the connection between parent and child and help families be more active in managing symptoms.

Safety of massage during cancer

Massage therapy is generally safe if it is used appropriately by a trained professional. Licensed massage therapists have received formal education and meet requirements for state credentials. Some massage therapists have additional training and certification and may specialize in oncology massage.

Massage techniques may need to be adapted to meet the needs of cancer patients. Therapists should avoid using hard pressure and avoid the area directly over a tumor or treatment site. Special care is needed for patients who have:

  • Open wounds
  • Bruised or irritated skin
  • Blood clots, clotting disorders, or are on blood clot medication such as Coumadin)
  • Low blood counts
  • Bone metastases or fractures
  • Skin sensitivity due to cancer treatments
  • Lymphedema
  • Peripheral neuropathy or other nerve pain
  • Medical devices

Risks of massage include:

  • Bruising
  • Temporary swelling or pain in the muscles
  • Allergic reactions to oils or lotions used during massage

Before trying massage therapy, families should:

  • Check with the care team. Ask about any special precautions needed. The care team may recommend a therapist who works with children and/or specializes in oncology massage.
  • Talk with the massage therapist, and check credentials. Discuss medical needs and therapy goals. Find out what to expect from the session. Ask questions, and discuss any concerns.
  • Do not use massage as a replacement for standard treatments recommended by the care team.

Reviewed: June 2018