Aromatherapy with light Thai massage resulted in a significant boost to the immune system of colorectal cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, according to recent research. The research also showed aromatherapy and massage significantly decreased the severity of common symptoms associated with chemotherapy, such as fatigue, pain and stress.

The study, “Effectiveness of Aromatherapy with Light Thai Massage for Cellular Immunity Improvement in Colorectal Cancer Patients Receiving Chemotherapy,” involved 66 patients with colorectal cancer who were undergo- ing chemotherapy. Patients included in this study had been diagnosed with stage 2 or 3 colorectal cancer and started receiving chemotherapy at least one month after surgery.

The 66 participants were randomly assigned to either the intervention group or a control group. For all subjects, the one-week study period occurred after a seven- to 10- day cycle of chemotherapy. Patients in the control group continued to receive standard care, while those in the intervention group received three 45-minute sessions of aromatherapy with light Thai massage during the one- week period.

According to the study’s authors, these intervention sessions involved a light Thai massage to the head, neck, face, back, shoulders, arms, hands, lower legs and feet using ginger and coconut oil. The same aromatherapy- and-massage protocol was used on all subjects in the intervention group.

Prior to the one-week study period, a blood sample was collected from all 66 subjects to assess the following cellular immunological changes, which were the primary outcome measures: white blood cells, neutrophils, lymphocytes, CD4 and CD8 cells, as well as the CD4/CD8 ratio. Blood samples were collected once again after the one-week study period, one to two days after the final massage session for those patients in the intervention group.

Secondary outcome measures were also assessed before and after the one-week study period. These outcome measures focused on the severity of symptoms related to common side effects of chemotherapy. Subjects were asked to rate their levels of pain, fatigue, stress, nausea and depression on a scale ranging from zero to 10. Each subject’s presenting symptom was defined as the one with the highest score on the initial assessment.

Results of the research revealed lymphocyte counts among patients in the aromatherapy-and-massage group were significantly higher after the one-week study period than the lymphocyte levels of the patients in the control group. The numbers suggest aromatherapy with light Thai massage could boost lymphocyte levels by 11 percent.

“It is potentially very important, especially in terms of the apparent effect size, to cancer patients if an improvement in their immune system functioning can help to protect them from infections during the course of their chemotherapy,” state the study’s authors.

The research also showed that the severity of fatigue, presenting symptom, pain and stress were significantly lower among subjects in the aromatherapy-and-massage group, as compared to those in the control group, following the one-week study period.

“In conclusion, aromatherapy with light Thai massage can be beneficial for the immune systems of cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy,” state the study’s authors, “by increasing the number of lymphocytes and can help to reduce the severity of common symptoms.”

Authors: Santisith Khiewkhern, Supannee Promthet, Aemkhea Sukprasert, Wichai Eunhpinitpong and Peter Bradshaw.

Sources: Department of Epidemiology, Faculty of Public Health, Hemato-Oncology Unit, Department of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, and Department of Physical Therapy, Faculty of Associated Medical Sciences, Khon Kaen University, Thailand; Social Medicine Unit, Phichit Hospital, Thailand. Originally published in 2013 in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, 14(6), 3903-7. 

This research report ran in the print edition of MASSAGE Magazine‘s November 2013 issue.