Research Roundup: Massage Therapy for Pain & Anxiety in Cancer Patients

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New Research Analysis Indicates Massage Therapy Shows Promise for Pain & Anxiety in Cancer Patients

Based on the evidence, massage therapy shows promise for reducing pain intensity/severity, fatigue, and anxiety in cancer populations compared to the active comparators evaluated in a new systematic review. This is the conclusion of a collaborative meta-analysis of research on massage therapy for pain conducted by Samueli Institute and commissioned by the Massage Therapy Foundation, with support from the American Massage Therapy Association. This review and analysis is published in the August issue of the journal Pain Medicine.

Massage Therapy Beneficial for Cancer Patients

The study concludes that patients should consider massage therapy as a therapeutic option to help manage their cancer pain. Pain is the most common and debilitating symptom among cancer patients. While the exact prevalence of pain varies depending on the type and stage of cancer, research shows that pain generally affects over 50% of those undergoing cancer therapy and up to 90% with advanced cancer experience pain1.

According to a 2007 meta-analysis, which pooled data from 52 studies, the prevalence of pain was found to be approximately 59% among patients undergoing active cancer treatment and over 50% across all cancer types, with the highest pooled prevalence of 70% among head/neck cancer patients2. These figures convey that cancer pain is perhaps not adequately addressed by the current health care system and underscore the significant challenges faced by treating oncologists and other medical professionals in the field of cancer pain management.

Pain & Anxiety in Cancer Patients

Cancer pain can range from mild to severe and from acute to chronic. Pain management can be challenging; not only can cancer pain be spontaneous, as in the case with the emergence of breakthrough pain3 (i.e., sudden, transient exacerbation of pain intensity in patients with stable and controlled chronic pain) despite continued administration of analgesics4, but it can also affect patients physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Patients often experience significant anxiety and depression5,6, as well as insomnia, fatigue, weakness, and other complications that can exacerbate each other, impair normal daily activities, and negatively impact quality of life7–9.

Specific factors surrounding the massage protocol, as well as selection of appropriate controls and standard outcomes, need to be well-understood before definitive clinical conclusions and recommendations regarding the usage and implementation of massage can be made for cancer pain at a policy level. However, this review’s promising results appear to warrant investment of time and resources into future research aimed at addressing these aforementioned gaps in order to ultimately consider massage therapy a standard treatment for cancer populations experiencing pain.

About the Study

Pain is multi-dimensional and may be better addressed through an integrative approach. Massage therapy is commonly used among people seeking pain management and research has generally supported its use. But, until now there has been no published, rigorous review of the available research and evidence for its efficacy for pain populations, especially for cancer populations. 

This systematic review and meta-analysis is the first to rigorously assess the quality of massage therapy research and evidence for its efficacy in treating pain, function-related and health-related quality of life in cancer populations. It is the second of a three-part series of articles which assessed research on massage therapy for various aspects of pain. Related: Massage for Pain Management

About The American Massage Therapy Association

The American Massage Therapy Association, the most respected name in massage therapy, is the largest non-profit, professional association serving massage therapists, massage students and massage schools. The association is directed by volunteer leadership and fosters ongoing, direct member-involvement through its 51 chapters. AMTA works to advance the profession through ethics and standards, the promotion of fair and consistent licensing of massage therapists in all states, and public education on the benefits of massage.


1. Lesage P, Portenoy RK. Trends in cancer pain management. Cancer Control 1999;6(2):136–45.Medline
2. van den Beuken-van Everdingen MH, de Rijke JM, Kessels AG, et al. Prevalence of pain in patients with cancer: A systematic review of the past 40 years. Ann Oncol 2007;18(9):1437–49.Abstract/FREE Full Text
3. Margarit C, Julia J, Lopez R, et al. Breakthrough cancer pain—Still a challenge. J Pain Res 2012;5:559–66.Medline
4. Smith H. A comprehensive review of rapid-onset opioids for breakthrough pain. CNS Drugs 2012;26(6):509–35.CrossRefMedlineWeb of Science
5. O'Mahony S, Goulet J, Kornblith A, et al. Desire for hastened death, cancer pain and depression: Report of a longitudinal observational study. J Pain Symptom Manage 2005;29(5):446–57.CrossRefMedlineWeb of Science
6. Archie P, Bruera E, Cohen L. Music-based interventions in palliative cancer care: A review of quantitative studies and neurobiological literature. Support Care Cancer 2013;21(9):2609–24.CrossRefMedline
7. Coleman EA, Goodwin JA, Coon SK, et al. Fatigue, sleep, pain, mood, and performance status in patients with multiple myeloma. Cancer Nurs 2011;34(3):219–27.CrossRefMedline
8. Dalal S, Hui D, Nguyen L, et al. Achievement of personalized pain goal in cancer patients referred to a supportive care clinic at a comprehensive cancer center. Cancer 2012;118(15):3869–77.CrossRefMedline
9. Reyes-Gibby CC, Wang J, Spitz M, et al. Genetic variations in interleukin-8 and interleukin-10 are associated with pain, depressed mood, and fatigue in lung cancer patients. J Pain Symptom Manage 2013;46(2):161–72.CrossRefMedlineWeb of Science

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