Building a Case

Growing evidence supports massage therapy for relief of chronic pain

A recent ADVANCE article discussed the work of the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) in lauding the benefits of massage in relieving chronic pain and as an alternative to opioid painkillers. The past 20 years have seen a fivefold increase in overdose-related death from the use of hydrocodone, methadone, and other painkillers.

Establishing the art of massage as an alternative to medication is all well and good—but if the results aren’t present in terms of relieving pain, patients are likely to turn right back to those medications. This week, we take a look at some of the evidence surrounding the effectiveness of massage in treating chronic pain.

Patients with Metastatic Cancer

A study from July 2013 published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine examined the usefulness of massage in treating patients with metastatic cancer.

The study took place at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) in Boston, MA, and was restricted to patients 18 years of age or older. Patients were divided into three groups—those who received massage therapy, those who received ‘no-touch’ intervention, and those who received a conventional approach to care. At a one-week follow up, the massage group showed a significant improvement in quality of life, specifically in terms of pain control and quality of sleep.

“Providing therapeutic massage improves the quality of life at the end of life for patients and may be associated with further beneficial effects, such as improvement in pain and sleep quality,” researchers wrote in the conclusion of the study. “Larger randomized controlled trials are needed to substantiate these findings.”

Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Another 2013 study randomly assigned 42 adults with rheumatoid arthritis in the upper limbs to separate massage therapy groups—one utilized techniques with moderate pressure; another utilizing light pressure. Each week over a four-week period, a therapist massaged the affected arm and shoulder, while teaching each patient a home-massage technique to be applied daily.

At the conclusion of the four-week period, the moderate pressure group reported decreased pain as well as greater grip strength and improved range of motion when compared to the light pressure group.

“This research demonstrates the potential value of massage therapy for the estimated 1.3 million Americans living with this chronic condition, with women outnumbering men 2.5-14. Rheumatoid arthritis sufferers are encouraged to speak with their health care provider about the possibility of incorporating routine massage therapy into their current treatment plan to help manage painful symptoms,” says Winona Bontrager, LPN, LMT, president of the Lancaster School of Massage, LLC.

Massage Therapy for Patients Following Cardiac Surgery

Research published in the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery showed a decrease in patients’ pain and tension, as well as increased relaxation and satisfaction following cardiac surgery.

The stated objective of this study was to “determine whether massage significantly reduces anxiety, pain, and muscular tension and enhances relaxation compared with an equivalent period of rest time after cardiac surgery.” To accomplish this, patients were randomized to receive either massage or “rest time” at two separate points in time following surgery.

“Visual analog scales were used to measure pain, anxiety, relaxation, muscular tension, and satisfaction,” read a synopsis of the study. “Heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure were measured before and after treatment. Focus groups and feedback were used to collect qualitative data about clinical significance and feasibility.”

Over 150 patients participated, with massage therapy patients reporting considerably stronger reductions in pain, anxiety, and muscular tension along with increased relaxation and satisfaction. Heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure remained largely the same. Specifically, pain reduced considerably between days 3–6 of massage.


The ongoing opioid abuse epidemic in the country has increased the urgency of the need for research into alternative means of relieving pain, and it seems as though the field of massage therapy is uniquely positioned to demonstrate its benefits. More recent research has included a look at the benefits of massage in treating cancer pain and pain following surgery.

Of course, this is to say nothing of the psychological and environmental benefits of massage. For some, massage still exists primarily as a means of relaxation; a way to treat one’s self after a long day or as a reward after completing a difficult project. And while those benefits certainly have their place and unspeakable value, it’s reassuring to know they only scratch the surface of massage therapy’s potential.


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