HIV-positive adolescents who received twice-weekly massage experienced decreased depression and an improvement in immune system function, according to a recent study.

The study, “HIV adolescents show improved immune function following massage therapy,” was completed in March 2000 by the Touch Research Institute in conjunction with the University of Miami School of Medicine and was originally reported in the International Journal of Neuroscience.

Twenty-four HIV-positive adolescents aged 13 to 19 were recruited from a health-care service center and randomly assigned to either a massage group or a relaxation group. All participants were undergoing similar anti-HIV drug regimens. For both groups, the first day of either massage or relaxation therapy was within one week of a scheduled blood draw, and the last day of therapy was within one week of the next scheduled blood draw.

Participants in the massage group received a 20-minute seated massage twice a week for 12 weeks. The massage therapist gave a standard seated massage, working on the back, arms, hands and neck of each participant. The back massage consisted of long, moderate-pressure strokes to the back parallel to the spine; gentle rocking; squeezing of shoulders and arms; finger pressure applied along the spine; and circular strokes to the hips. Massage to the arms included kneading and pressing from shoulder to lower arm. Work on the hands included massage of the entire hand, pulling of fingers, pressure to the palm for 15-20 seconds, and gentle pulling of the arms. The neck massage consisted of kneading, finger pressure along the skull and neck, scalp massage, and pressing and squeezing from the trapezius down to the arms.

The relaxation group participants were led through 20 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation twice weekly for the 12 weeks. A research assistant or a massage therapist would instruct the participants to tense and relax the same muscles that were massaged in the massage group: the back, arms, hands and neck.

Pre- and post-treatment research assessments included: a demographic questionnaire; the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D) questionnaire to rate depression; a blood draw to measure T-lymphocytes (HIV disease progression markers) and natural killer cells (cells that provide protection against opportunistic disease); and a state anxiety inventory to assess feelings.

Results showed that natural killer cell numbers increased only for the massage therapy group. The massage therapy group also reported feeling less depressed than those in the relaxation group, and experienced an improvement in immune function at the end of the 12 weeks, as compared to the relaxation group.

Researchers suggested that a future study could look at the effects of massage therapy on HIV-positive adolescents who are not depressed.

Source: Touch Research Institute. Originally reported in International Journal of Neuroscience, 2000, Vol. 106, pp. 35-45.