Case Study: Massage Therapy for Caregivers

When an individual experiences a traumatic injury, most often the entire family—especially the family members who are closely involved in caregiving—is profoundly affected.

“These individuals experience a high level of stress given uncertainty regarding their family member’s survival,” explains Natalie Williams, assistant professor of Child, Youth and Family Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “There is a great need for interventions to reduce caregiver stress and improve mental health during their family member’s hospitalization, but few existing programs are available since in most settings, services are aimed at addressing the treatment needs of the identified patient.”

Recognizing there was a research gap in the role family caregivers play in the functional recovery of individuals suffering traumatic injury, Williams and her colleagues decided to investigate how massage therapy might impact the health of caregivers.

“Massage represented a novel intervention to promote physical and psychological well-being among these caregivers, without adding to their burden,” she says. “In addition, we hoped that a massage intervention might reinforce the importance and benefits of self-care.”

The Plan.

This pilot study focused on determining the impact of dosage massage intervention on symptoms of anxiety and depression and physiological stress reactivity of caregivers with hospitalized family members.

“Specifically, we randomized participants to receive either one massage per week or three massages per week,” Williams says. “Since this was a pilot study, we also were interested in documenting the feasibility and acceptability of a massage intervention for family caregivers in the inpatient rehabilitation environment.”

According to Williams, massage therapists used a standardized 60-minute moderate pressure therapeutic massage protocol specifying different body regions to be addressed, though the time allocated to each body region could be customized by the therapist in consult with the study participant.

“Use of specific therapeutic massage techniques, as well as the technique sequence, was left to the discretion of the massage therapist to allow for some individualization of treatment based on therapist preference and client needs,” explains Williams.

The Results.

Prior to and after receiving the massage intervention, caregivers completed questionnaires assessing symptoms of anxiety and depression. “We also collected saliva samples to measure their physiological stress reactivity,” Williams adds, “and participants wore a small device that records patterns of sleep and wakefulness for 72 hours.”

Although full results aren’t yet available, Williams reports positive feedback from the study participants. “Participants who have completed the study provided very positive feedback, highlighting the potential benefits of massage for caregivers,” she says.

The Implications for Your Massage Practice.

“It is helpful to encourage and discuss the benefits of self-care with these clients, as many caregivers feel guilty taking time away from their family member to get a massage,” Williams says. They may, however, benefit from flexibility in your scheduling so they can get massages while still providing care for their loved ones, she adds.

Related: Self-care for Massage Clients

Natalie Williams, assistant professor of Child, Youth and Family Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She was awarded a research grant from the Massage Therapy Foundation for her work on the “Impact of Massage Therapy on Well-Being for Parents of Children Recovering From Traumatic Injury."

Excerpted from the Spring 2017 Massage Therapy Journal.

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