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A meta-analysis of 16 studies on massage therapy for pain among cancer patients found that massage effectively improves pain, as well as fatigue and anxiety. However, the review also found several weaknesses among these studies that could affect the ability to implement massage programs for cancer patients.

Overview

The study, “The impact of massage therapy on function in pain populations—a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials: Part II, cancer pain populations,” involved a review of 16 studies on massage therapy for pain, as well as function-related and health-related quality of life outcomes among cancer pain populations.

The hands-on techniques used in the 16 studies were massage therapy, Thai massage and lymphatic drainage. These were compared to standard care and no-treatment control groups, as well as active controls such as touch, caring presence and quiet time.

As for as the dosages of massage therapy and control comparisons, these spanned the spectrum from a single 10-minute session to 45-minute sessions each day for 15 days.

Adult male physiotherapist treating the foot of a female patient. Patient is sitting on a bed.Results on Cancer Pain

Results of the research showed that massage therapy, compared to the no-treatment and active control groups, is an effective way to address pain among cancer patients. Compared to the active controls featured in these studies, massage also improved fatigue and anxiety among cancer patients.

“Overall, massage therapy seems to be more effective than other active treatments evaluated for reducing pain intensity/severity, fatigue and anxiety in cancer patients,” stated the study’s authors.

Reservations

However, the review also noted several shortcomings among these studies that affect the ability to make strong recommendations about the use of massage for cancer-related pain.

For example, there was a lack of information on the amount of time practitioners focused on each location on the client’s body, none of the studies used specific terms to describe the massage protocols, and practitioner qualifications were described in only about 30 percent of the studies—and ranged from six months to 10 years of experience.

“Specific factors surrounding the massage protocol, as well as selection of appropriate controls and standard outcomes, need to be well-understood before definitive clinical conclusions and recommendations regarding the usage and implementation of massage can be made for cancer pain at a policy level,” stated the study’s authors.

“This review’s promising results warrant investment of time and resources into future research aimed at addressing these aforementioned gaps in order to ultimately consider massage therapy a standard treatment for cancer populations experiencing pain,” they added

Authors: Courtney Boyd, Cindy Crawford, Charmagne Paat, Ashley Price, Lea Xenakis, Weimin Zhang and the Evidence for Massage Therapy Working Group.

Sources: Samueli Institute, Alexandria, Virginia. Originally published online in May 2016 in Pain Medicine.

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