A lot of the scientific research on the clinical effects of massage therapy for various conditions has been carried out, but some of the research hasn’t been of high quality, and the mechanisms by which massage therapy has its effects are unclear. Research suggests that massage therapy may help relieve several kinds of pain, but in most instances, the evidence is not strong, and massage may provide only short-term relief. Massage may be helpful for anxiety and depression in people with fibromyalgia, cancer, or HIV/AIDS. Massage therapy may help premature infants gain weight, but it has not been clearly shown to have benefits for full-term infants.
This issue of the digest provides information on what the science currently says about the clinical effects of massage for several health conditions, including pain, cancer symptoms, and others.
Condition and Summary of Current Evidence
Several reviews of research have found weak evidence that massage may be helpful for low-back pain. Clinical guidelines issued by the American College of Physicians in 2017 included massage as an option for treating acute/subacute low-back pain but did not include massage therapy among the options for treating chronic low-back pain.
Massage therapy may provide short-term benefits for neck or shoulder pain.
Only a few studies have examined massage therapy for osteoarthritis, but results of some of these studies suggest that massage may have short-term benefits in relieving knee pain.
Only a small number of studies have looked at massage for headache, and results have not been consistent.
With appropriate precautions, massage therapy can be part of supportive care for cancer patients who would like to try it; however, the evidence that it can relieve pain and anxiety is not strong. 2014 clinical practice guidelines for the care of breast cancer patients include massage as one of several approaches that may be helpful for stress reduction, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and quality of life.
Results of research suggest that massage therapy may be helpful for some fibromyalgia symptoms.
There is some evidence that massage therapy may have benefits for anxiety, depression, and quality of life in people with HIV/AIDS, but the amount of research and number of people studied are small.
There is some evidence that premature infants who are massaged may have improved weight gain. No benefits of massage for healthy full-term infants have been clearly demonstrated.