Women who received massage therapy the morning after a mastectomy reported a significant reduction in pain, stress and muscle tension, along with an increase in relaxation, according to recent research.

The study, “Effect of Massage Therapy for Postsurgical Mastectomy Recipients,” involved 64 women ranging in age from 26 to 86, with a mean age of 57.6 years. Each subject had received either unilateral or bilateral mastectomy surgery, and more than half of the women received immediate reconstruction or axillary lymph node dissection as well.

The day after surgery, a certified massage therapist offered massage therapy to 64 patients who had undergone a mastectomy. The massage therapist provided a brochure on what to expect during the session and the potential benefits of massage therapy, as part of a short explanation of this pilot program. The women were informed they would be charged $1 dollar per minute of massage therapy, which would be charged to their hospital bill and probably not covered by insurance.

Forty-six of the postsurgical mastectomy patients, or 72 percent, chose to receive massage, and the same certified massage therapist performed each session. Prior to the start of the study, this massage therapist, who has a background in physical therapy, spent a day observing breast surgery to better understand what mastectomies and axillary dissections entail.

Massage sessions were tailored to suit each patient’s needs and to accommodate postsurgical positioning and medical equipment, such as surgical drains and breast binders. Massage therapy was applied to the region of the body chosen by the patient. One option was neck-and-shoulder massage at bedside, with the patient in a sitting position and her upper extremities supported by pillows. The other two options were hand massage in a sitting or supine position, or foot massage in a supine position.

The length of each massage session varied depending on feedback from the patient and assessment by the massage therapist. According to the researchers, these sessions ranged from eight to 45 minutes, with a mean duration of 23 minutes. For lubrication, the massage therapist used an unscented, organic massage lotion.

Before the massage therapy session, each patient was asked to assess her pain, anxiety and muscle tension levels using visual analog scales ranging from zero to 10, where 10 was the most severe or worst. Subjects also rated their relaxation levels from zero to 10, where 10 was not relaxed at all.

Immediately after the massage session, patients again ranked these same measures using the same scales of zero to 10. Prior to dismissal from the hospital, the women also completed an anonymous survey about the massage experience, with questions about satisfaction, stress, relaxation, pain and overall well-being.

Results of the research showed that these postsurgical patients reported decreases in pain, anxiety and tension, as well as increases in relaxation, right after each massage session. Subjects also reported that the massage therapy was very or somewhat effective in stress relief, relaxation and pain relief, and 27 of the women also deemed massage therapy very effective in terms of general feelings of wellness.

Thirty-three of the women returned the anonymous surveys prior to leaving the hospital, and of these, 30 were very satisfied, three were satisfied and all 33 reported they would recommend postoperative massage to other surgical patients. A review of the billing process showed that insurance declined coverage and the patients paid for the massage on their own.

“The results of this quality improvement pilot study suggest that massage therapy can complement surgical therapy and assist with pain, anxiety, tension, and relaxation, and improve overall well-being in the postoperative setting,” state the study’s authors. “The study also demonstrates the feasibility of integrating a massage therapy program into a busy surgical hospital unit for postoperative breast surgery recipients.

“The nursing staff found that massage therapy did not disrupt the flow of patient care and commented that patients appreciated the option of a postoperative massage,” the researchers continue. “Finally, review of billing data and patient interest in participation indicated that a fee-for-service model is feasible.”


Authors: Nancy L. Drackley, Amy C. Degnim, James W. Jakub, Susanne M. Cutshall, Barbara S. Thomley, Julie K. Brodt, Laura K. VanderLei, Jane K. Case, Lisa D. Bungum, Stephen S. Cha, Brent A. Bauer and Judy C. Boughey.

Sources: Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program, Department of Surgery, College of Medicine, Department of Nursing, Department of Health Science Research, Division of General Internal Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota. Originally published in April 2012 in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, 16(2), 121-124.