Among patients with advanced cancer, 30 minutes of massage therapy resulted in immediate benefits to both pain and mood, according to recent research.

“Massage Therapy versus Simple Touch to Improve Pain and Mood in Patients with Advanced Cancer” involved 348 people suffering from stage III or IV cancer and moderate to severe pain. Ninety percent of the participants were enrolled in hospice.

Subjects were randomly assigned to receive either 30 minutes of massage therapy or 30 minutes of simple touch. Each cancer patient received six sessions of his or her assigned intervention throughout a two-week period, with at least 24 hours between sessions.

The massage therapy involved 30 minutes of gentle, smooth and gliding strokes (effleurage); squeezing, rolling and kneading of the muscles (petrissage); and trigger-point release, using finger pressure at tender areas to soothe recurring spasms and pain. The simple touch consisted of placing both hands on various parts of the subject’s body for three minutes at a time over a total of 30 minutes. Those who provided the simple touch were not trained in energy work or massage therapy; rather, they were instructed to use light and consistent pressure with no side-to-side hand movement.

Researchers evaluated both the immediate and the long-term effects of both types of touch. Immediate effects were measured just before and after each intervention. Sustained effects were measured at the start of the study and every week for three weeks.

The primary measures were immediate and sustained changes in pain, which were measured by the Memorial Pain Assessment Card. Secondary evaluations included immediate changes in mood, also measured by the Memorial Pain Assessment Card; 60-second heart and respiratory rates; sustained change in quality of life, which was measured by the McGill Quality of Life Questionnaire; symptom distress, which was measured by the Memorial Symptom Assessment Scale; and use of analgesic medication, which was measured in parenteral morphine equivalents.

Results of the research revealed an immediate improvement in pain and mood for both the massage therapy and simple touch groups. However, massage proved to be clinically superior for both immediate pain and mood improvement.

At three weeks, there were no significant differences between the effects of massage therapy and simple touch on the subjects. Both interventions seemed to benefit the participants equally over time, as cancer patients in both groups showed significant improvements in pain.

“Massage may have immediately beneficial effects on pain and mood among patients with advanced cancer,” said the study’s authors. “Given the lack of sustained effects and the observed improvements in both study groups, the potential benefits of attention and simple touch should also be considered in this patient population.”

Authors: Jean S. Kutner, Marlaine C. Smith, Lisa Corbin, Linnea Hemphill, Kathryn Benton, B. Karen Mellis, Brenda Beaty, Sue Felton, Traci E. Yamashita, Lucinda L. Bryant and Diane L. Fairclough.

Source: University of Colorado, National Institutes of Health and National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Originally published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (2008) 149: 369-379.