Massage therapy decreased pain, symptom distress and anxiety in hospitalized cancer patients, according to a recent study.

Forty-one patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer participated in the study, “Outcomes of Therapeutic Massage for Hospitalized Cancer Patients,” during a 16-month period. Ninety-five percent of the participants were men. Subjects had the following cancer diagnoses: lymph, lung, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, head and neck, leukemia, breast and skin.

Throughout the first eight months of the study, 20 patients on the oncology unit received massage therapy. One nurse provided the massage, which consisted of 15-30 minutes of light Swedish techniques, varying slightly according to each patient’s medical needs. Subjects received the massage, in their hospital bed, three times during a one-week hospital stay.

Throughout the last eight months of the study, 21 patients received 20 minutes of nurse interaction, a control condition to account for personal attention received by subjects in the massage group.

Four outcome variables were measured: pain (intensity and distress), subjective sleep quality, symptom distress and anxiety. Pain was measured with a numerical rating scale; subjective sleep quality was measured with the Verran and Snyder-Halpern Sleep Scale; symptom distress, such as nausea, mood and appetite, was measured with the Symptom Distress Scale; and anxiety was evaluated with the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory.

Subjects completed demographic questionnaires and the four outcome questionnaires after their first night in the hospital and on the seventh day of their stay.

The mean scores for pain and symptom distress decreased significantly for participants in the massage-therapy group. Their anxiety decreased, as well, although not significantly, and their subjective sleep quality remained the same.

For subjects in the nurse-interaction group, pain, symptom distress and subjective sleep quality all worsened, although their anxiety was slightly decreased.

“The consistent findings from this study and other published reports indicate that therapeutic massage may be an integral and important part of nursing care in hospital and hospice settings for cancer patients,” state the study’s authors. “Content and practice of therapeutic massage should be strengthened in the nursing curricula and integrated throughout clinical practice.”

Source: University of Colorado Health Sciences Center School of Nursing and Denver Veterans Administration Medical Center. Authors: Marlaine C. Smith, R.N., Ph.D.; Janet Kemp, R.N., Ph.D.; Linnea Hemphill, R.N., L.M.T.; and Carol P. Vojir, Ph.D. Originally published in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 2002, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 257-262.