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Massage Therapy Has a Role in Pain Management

The following article is published in the January/February 2003 issue of Practical Pain Management magazine and is made available on the AMTA website with the approval of the publication’s editor.

Massage Therapy Has a Role in Pain Management

Brenda L. Griffith

A growing body of research shows massage therapy can be an effective part of pain relief and management.  This research data, and the experience of physicians, massage therapists and patients, should encourage pain specialists to consider incorporating massage therapy into their pain management programs. 

Some base findings about the value of massage therapy for pain relief have included the following:

  • According to Cherkin, Eisenberg, et. al. in the April 2001 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine,1 massage is effective for providing long-lasting relief for patients suffering from chronic low back pain.

  • Data collected nearly 10 years ago indicates that therapeutic massage promotes relaxation and alleviates the perception of pain and anxiety in hospitalized cancer patients.2  Recent studies have confirmed the findings and others indicate positive effects for massage in decreasing pain intensity among cancer patients.3

  • In 1990, Jensen et al. published data indicating that massage was better than cold pack treatment of post-traumatic headaches.4  The October 2002 issue of the American Journal of Public Health reports that new research by Quinn, Chandler and Moraska showed muscle-specific massage therapy is effective for reducing the incidence of chronic tension headaches.5

  • A pilot study in 2000, conducted by Gregory P. Fontana, MD at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, found that massage reduces pain and muscle spasms in patients who have multiple incisions.  When surveyed, 95 percent of patients felt that massage therapy was a crucial part of their hospital experience, while need for medications dropped on days they received a massage.

In their Comprehensive Accreditation Manual for Hospitals: The Official Handbook, updated in August 2000, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) suggests massage as a non-pharmacological therapy that can be used successfully in pain management. Some hospitals are including massage therapists in patient care teams to fight pain. Their teams may include a physician, several nurses, a nutritionist, a yoga instructor, a chaplain, and a massage therapist.  Often, the hospitals are including massage because of public demand.  More research needs to be done to evaluate not only the effectiveness of such teams, but of the various elements within them, to determine which combination of therapies works best for different types of patients and different types of pain.

The effectiveness of massage lies in a simple and direct strategy: working from the external, outer mechanisms of pain to the primary, root cause. Massage therapists utilize a holistic approach, focusing on the entire body system and its relationship to soft tissue.  Their care isn’t focused only on the site of pain.

Another benefit of massage therapy from a patient perspective is how it helps patients become more aware of their bodies and better familiarize them with the pain they experience.  The massage therapist not only helps relieve muscle and other soft tissue pain, but also has an impact on the patient by virtue of human touch.  This is especially pronounced for women facing mastectomies and dealing with the outcomes of that surgery.  Massage helps them feel comfortable once again with their bodies.  This comfort level improves their confidence and allows them to better deal with pain, while benefiting from various other forms of massage that focus on lymph drainage and muscle pain, as well as other pain management therapies.

Although more research is needed to confirm the best uses of massage, the potential for a positive impact on patients with acute or chronic pain is clear. As it stands, enough research exists to encourage pain management specialists and massage therapists to forge professional relationships.  These pain management relationships should exist in the hospital, in clinics, in private practice offices and in home care.

Certainly, it can be a challenge for physicians and other medical professionals to know how to find qualified massage therapists.  Massage therapists have areas of specialty and many focus exclusively on relaxation massage.  The fact that only 31 states and Washington, D.C. regulate the profession, also makes finding a trained and qualified massage therapist more difficult than looking in the telephone directory.  The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), founded in 1943, can help pain management specialists connect with an AMTA member who is qualified to work with them. It offers a free Find a Massage Therapist national locator service at www.findamassagetherapist.org.

1 Cherkin D.C., Eisenberg D., et.al. Randomized Trial Comparing Traditional Chinese Medical Acupuncture, Therapeutic Massage, and Self-care
Education for Chronic Low Back Pain. Arch Intern Med. 161(8):1081-8; Apr 23, 2001.
2 Ferrell-Torry A.T. and Glick O.J. The Use of Therapeutic Massage as a Nursing Intervention to Modify Anxiety and the Perception of Cancer Pain. Cancer Nurse. 16(2): 93-101; Apr 1993.
3 Smith M.C., Kemp J., Hemphill L., Vojir C.P. Outcomes of Therapeutic Massage for Hospitalized Cancer Patients. J Nurs Scholarsh 34(3): 257-62; 2002.
4 Jensen O.K., Neilsen F.F., Vosmar L. An Open Study Comparing Manual Therapy with the Use of Cold Packs in the Treatment of Post-traumatic   Headache. Cephalalgia (Norway). 10(5): 241-50; Oct 1990.
5 Quinn C., Chandler C., Moraska A. Massage Therapy and Frequency of Chronic Tension Headaches. Am J Public Health 92(10); 1657-61; Oct 2002.

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