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Touch-based complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for cancer patients resulted in significant improvements in symptoms such as pain and fatigue, according to a recent systematic review.

However, the review also emphasizes the need for higher quality research on touch-based CAM for cancer patients.

The review, “A systematic review of complementary and alternative medicine in oncology: Psychological and physical effects of manipulative and body-based practices,” focused on 41 randomized controlled trials. These studies involved a total of 3,044 adult cancer patients and investigated the effects of touch-based CAM on psychological and physical symptoms associated with cancer.

Oncology Massage & CAM

As for the types of CAM employed in these studies, 24 of the 41 trials focused on massage. Eleven of the studies used a reflexology intervention, and the remaining six employed acupressure.

Psychological outcomes assessed included quality of life and mood, with specific evaluations for issues such as anxiety, depression and stress. The assessment of physical outcomes focused mainly on the management of symptoms such as nausea, pain and fatigue.

The results of the systematic review showed body-based CAM had a positive and significant effect on symptoms associated with cancer, particularly pain and fatigue.

However, the review also identified several weak points in the research on touch-based CAM for cancer patients.

Better Study Design Needed

According to the authors of the review, most of the studies featured inadequate randomization and a lack of double-blinding. In a double-blind study, neither the participants nor the researchers know who is receiving the real intervention and who is receiving the placebo intervention.

“Unfortunately, less than half of the studies used a placebo group to assess interventions,” state the authors of the review. “This is most certainly due to the cost of implementing placebo versus intervention designs, as well as the difficulties in designing adequate and convincing placebo interventions of manual therapies.”

Other reported weak points in the research were a lack of diversity in study participants and cancer types—most of the studies’ subjects were women with breast cancer.

“Further randomized controlled trials are still needed to clear remaining doubts, and these trials should be supplied with large samples, adequate randomization and appropriate blinding,” state the authors of the review.

“Ideally, those trials should be multi-centric, and tested interventions should be administered by several different practitioners, which would be a more truthful representation of CAM.”

About the Authors

Authors: Nicolas Calcagni, Kamel Gana and Bruno Quintard.Sources: Handicap Activity Cognition Health, Bordeaux, France; and University of Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France. Originally published online in October 2019 in PLOS One.