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NCCIH Clinical Digest

for health professionals

Massage Therapy for Health Purposes:
What the Science Says

February 2014
Clinical Guidelines, Scientific Literature, Info for Patients: 


Strength of Evidence

  • Many clinical studies have been done on the effects of massage for pain conditions.

Research Results

  • A 2008 Cochrane systematic review and 2011 NCCAM-funded clinical trial concluded that massage may be useful for chronic low-back pain. Clinical practice guidelines, issued jointly by the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society, recommends that for patients who do not improve with self-care options, clinicians should consider the addition of nonpharmacologic therapy with proven benefits—for chronic or subacute low back pain, intensive interdisciplinary rehabilitation, exercise therapy, acupuncture, massage therapy, spinal manipulation, yoga, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or progressive relaxation.
  • A 2009 NCCAM-funded clinical trial reported that massage may help with chronic neck pain.
  • According to a 2012 NCCAM-funded study, massage may help with pain due to osteoarthritis of the knee.
  • Studies suggest that for women in labor, massage provided some pain relief and increased their satisfaction with other forms of pain relief, but a 2012 review concluded that the evidence is not strong.
  • Clinical trials on the effects of massage for headaches are preliminary and only somewhat promising.


Strength of Evidence

  • Much research has been conducted on massage therapy for people with cancer.

Research Results

  • Numerous systematic reviews and clinical studies have suggested that at least for the short-term, massage therapy for cancer patients may reduce pain, promote relaxation, and boost mood.


Strength of Evidence

  • Many clinical trials have been conducted to evaluate the effects of massage therapy on mental health conditions, such as depression.

Research Results

  • A 2010 meta-analysis of 17 clinical trials concluded that massage therapy may help to reduce depression. 
  • In a 2012 exploratory study funded by NCCAM, investigators compared standard prenatal care with brief twice weekly yoga or massage sessions for 12 weeks in pregnant women suffering from depression. They found a decrease in depression, anxiety, and back and leg pain among those who received massage or yoga. Also, the women’s babies weighed more than babies born to women who didn’t receive the therapy. However, a 2013 Cochrane review concluded that there is not enough evidence to make recommendations about massage therapy for pregnant mothers with depression.


Strength of Evidence

  • Several studies have investigated whether massage therapy has any beneficial effects on pain and other symptoms associated with fibromyalgia.

Research Results

  • A 2010 review concluded that massage therapy may help temporarily reduce pain, fatigue, and other symptoms associated with fibromyalgia, but the evidence is not definitive. The authors of the review noted that it is important that the massage therapist not cause pain.


Strength of Evidence

  • A few studies have examined the effects of massage therapy on the quality of life for people with HIV or AIDS.

Research Results

  • A 2010 systematic review of four small clinical trials concluded that massage therapy may help improve the quality of life for people with HIV or AIDS.

Infant Care

Strength of Evidence

  • Several studies on massage therapy in preterm infants have been conducted to determine if therapeutic massage provides any benefits.

Research Results

  • A 2010 review suggested that massaging preterm infants using moderate pressure may improve weight gain. However, a 2013 review determined that there is not enough evidence to know if massage benefits healthy infants who are developing normally.

Other Conditions

Current evidence from completed or ongoing research is insufficient to make conclusions about whether massage is helpful for the following conditions:

  • Behavior of children with autism or autism spectrum disorders
  • Immune function in women with breast cancer
  • Anxiety and pain in patients following heart surgery
  • Quality of life and glucose levels in people with diabetes
  • Lung function in children with asthma.


Massage therapy appears to have few risks if it is used appropriately and provided by a trained massage professional. However, people with some conditions should use caution when considering massage therapy.

  • The National Cancer Institute urges massage therapists to take specific precautions with cancer patients and avoid massaging:
    • Open wounds, bruises, or areas with skin breakdown
    • Directly over the tumor site
    • Areas with a blood clot in a vein
    • Sensitive areas following radiation therapy.
  • Investigators and common sense also suggest that massage therapists avoid forceful and deep tissue massage in patients who have bleeding disorders or low blood platelet counts, are taking anticoagulant medications such as warfarin, or in any potentially weak area of the skin such as near wounds.

NCCIH Clinical Digest is a service of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, NIH, DHHS. NCCIH Clinical Digest, a monthly e-newsletter, offers evidence-based information on complementary health approaches, including scientific literature searches, summaries of NCCIH-funded research, fact sheets for patients, and more.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is dedicated to exploring complementary health products and practices in the context of rigorous science, training complementary health researchers, and disseminating authoritative information to the public and professionals. For additional information, call NCCIH's Clearinghouse toll-free at 1-888-644-6226, or visit the NCCIH Web site at NCCIH is 1 of 27 institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health, the Federal focal point for medical research in the United States.


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This page last modified December 12, 2018