NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Gentle massage may temporarily relieve pain and improve the mood in people who are terminally ill with cancer, a new study suggests.

In a study of 380 hospice patients with advanced cancer, researchers found that those given light massage sessions reported immediate improvements in their pain and mood.

The benefits were not long-lasting, but the findings suggest that massage therapy could stand as one, safe way to ease cancer patients’ pain, the researchers say.

“Massage does seem to be helpful, at least for a short time,” said study leader Dr. Jean S. Kutner of the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine.

The researcher found no evidence that the therapy could harm cancer patients, she noted in an interview, so massage might be “worthwhile” for

patients who need pain relief.

Kutner also stressed, however, that the therapists in her study had experience working with people with cancer, and that patients should look for a therapist with this experience if they choose to try massage therapy.

Many terminally ill people go through serious pain and emotional distress at the end of life and some have turned to massage for help. But before now, little had been known about the therapy’s effectiveness.

For the current study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Kutner and her colleagues randomly assigned 380 hospice patients to one of two treatment groups: one that received up to six massage sessions over two weeks, and one that received sessions involving “simple touch.”

In the latter case, the researchers had a non-professional simply place a hand on particular areas of the patient’s body — the shoulder blades and lower back, for example.

Overall, the study found, patients in both groups reported immediate improvements in pain and mood, but the benefits were greater in the massage group.

This, Kutner said, suggests that massage works for reasons beyond receiving attention and human contact. It’s not entirely clear why massage is effective for pain, she said, but some propose that it decreases inflammation and swelling, triggers a flood of “feel-good” hormones called endorphins, and helps release muscle spasms.

More studies, according to Kutner, should look at the potential benefits of massage for people with less-advanced cancer or with other serious illnesses.

She added that more attention should also go toward the potential benefits of simple touch — which was effective in this study and, in the real world, would be simple enough for family members to perform.

Kutner pointed out that people who are very ill with cancer are likely to lack the basic human contact that healthy people get in their daily lives. So providing that alone may help improve their physical and emotional well-being.

SOURCE: Annals of Internal Medicine, September 16, 2008.