Recent research found massage therapy in the postoperative thoracic surgery setting is both feasible and effective, with patients reporting significant decreases in pain following a massage.

The study, “Effect of Massage on Pain Management for Thoracic Surgery Patients,” involved 160 patients, with a mean age of 61 years, recovering from general thoracic surgery procedures.

The patients were selected for massage therapy by the nursing staff, based on each patient’s reported level of pain and anxiety, as well as the length of his or her hospital stay. According to the researchers, those patients with higher levels of pain and longer hospital stays were assigned the highest priority for massage therapy.

Two massage therapists, both trained in hospital-based massage therapy, provided the postoperative sessions. Each massage began with a one- to five-minute assessment, including patient positioning for optimal comfort, followed by 20 minutes of massage on those areas requested by the patient.

“Positioning depended on the patient’s comfort level, mobility and placement of tubes, lines and equipment,” state the study’s authors. “If the patient’s pain seemed to worsen during the massage, often changing the patient’s position would help.”

If changing the patient’s position did not seem to help, the therapist would then alter what he or she was doing by changing the pressure, the massage technique or area of focus on the patient’s body.

The massage therapists did not massage within 2 inches of any surgical wound, and the depth and pressure of touch was light and moderate. The techniques employed included Swedish, craniosacral, myofascial release, reflexology and diaphragmatic breathing.

“Massage techniques were selected by the therapist and tailored on the basis of the patient’s symptoms, symptom location, medical status and positioning tolerance,” state the study’s authors. “The therapist modified massage techniques to avoid bruising, to avoid a negative impact on low or high blood pressure and heart rate, and not to pull on the incision site.”

The outcome measure for this study was pain, which each patient reported before and after the massage session, using a scale from zero to 10. The results of the research revealed a significant decrease in pain scores following massage.

 “This pilot study suggests that massage therapy is an intervention with potential to help patients deal with some of the more common problematic challenges, such as pain and anxiety,” the researchers report. “If future studies confirm these preliminary findings, post-operative massage therapy may have a clinically significant role in helping patients recover optimally from surgery.”


Authors: Liza Dion, Nancy Rodgers, Susanne M. Cutshall, Mary Ellen Cordes, Brent Bauer, Stephen D. Cassivi and Stephen Cha.

Sources: Department of Surgery, Department of Nursing, Division of General Internal Medicine, Division of General Thoracic Surgery, and Division of Biomedical Informatics and Biostatistics, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota. Originally published in International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, 4(2), 2-6.