Diarrhea is the second leading cause of death among infants and young children in the developing world, according to researchers at Utah State University.

“Impact of Massage Therapy on Health Outcomes Among Orphaned Infants in Ecuador” investigated whether massage could reduce diarrheal episodes and decrease overall illness in infants.

This randomized clinical trial evaluated the effect of massage on  37 infants in two orphanages in Quito, Ecuador. The experimental group received massage therapy daily, for an average of 53 days. The control group received no intervention.

The experimental treatment consisted of a 15-minute full-body massage (including the legs, stomach, chest, arms, face and back), usually in the morning, delivered by orphanage volunteers or staff, all of whom were trained by a certified instructor.

Symptoms of illness data were documented twice daily by orphanage volunteers, and included upper respiratory symptoms, infection including diarrhea and vomiting, and abnormal whining or fussiness.

The resulting statistics indicated that massage was very effective in controlling diarrhea and illness; the incidence rate of diarrhea in the no-massage group was 50 percent higher than in the treatment group. Control-group infants were also 11 percent more likely than experimental infants to experience illness of any kind. The researchers estimate, based on the data gathered in this project, that massage could possibly reduce the incidence of diarrhea in similar populations by 16 percent, and that incidence of any illness could be reduced by 5 percent in similar populations.

The authors speculate that massage could have increased immunity in the infants in the experimental group. Another possibility the authors discuss is that massage improved infants’ gastrointestinal functioning through stimulation of the vagus nerve, which other studies support. They also comment that massage is “a remarkably inexpensive intervention,” and assert that the significant positive outcome of this pilot study warrants further research in this area.

Source: Utah State University, Logan. Authors: Vonda K. Jump, PhD; Jamison D. Fargo, PhD; and James F. Akers, PhD. Originally published in Family and Community Health, Vol. 29, No. 4, December 2006, pp. 314–319.