What Is Massage Therapy?
The term “massage therapy” includes many techniques, and the type of massage given usually depends on your needs and physical condition.
What the Science Says About the Effectiveness of Massage
A lot of the scientific research on massage therapy is preliminary or conflicting, but much of the evidence points toward beneficial effects on pain and other symptoms associated with a number of different conditions. Much of the evidence suggests that these effects are short term and that people need to keep getting massages for the benefits to continue.
Researchers have studied the effects of massage for many conditions. Some that they have studied more extensively are the following:
- A 2008 research review and 2011 NCCIH-funded clinical trial concluded that massage may be useful for chronic low-back pain.
- Massage may help with chronic neck pain, a 2009 NCCIH-funded clinical trial reported.
- Massage may help with pain due to osteoarthritis of the knee, according to a 2012 NCCIH-funded study.
- Studies suggest that for women in labor, massage provided some pain relief and increased their satisfaction with other forms of pain relief, but the evidence isn’t strong, a 2012 review concluded.
Numerous research 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. However, 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.
- A 2010 meta-analysis of 17 clinical trials concluded that massage therapy may help to reduce depression.
- Brief, twice-weekly yoga and massage sessions for 12 weeks were associated with a decrease in depression, anxiety, and back and leg pain in pregnant women with depression, a 2012 NCCIH-funded clinical trial showed. Also, the women’s babies weighed more than babies born to women who didn’t receive the therapy.
- However, a 2013 research review concluded that there’s not enough evidence to determine if massage helps pregnant mothers with depression.
- A 2010 review concluded that massage may help older people relax.
- For generalized anxiety disorder, massage therapy was no better at reducing symptoms than providing a relaxing environment and deep breathing lessons, according to a small, 2010 NCCIH-supported clinical trial.
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 noted that it’s important that the massage therapist not cause pain.
Clinical trials on the effects of massage for headaches are preliminary and only somewhat promising.
Massage therapy may help improve the quality of life for people with HIV or AIDS, a 2010 review of four small clinical trials concluded.
Massaging preterm infants using moderate pressure may improve weight gain, a 2010 review suggested. We don’t have enough evidence to know if massage benefits healthy infants who are developing normally, a 2013 review determined.
Researchers have studied massage for the following but it’s still unclear if it helps:
- 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.
What the Science Says About the Safety and Side Effects of Massage Therapy
Massage therapy appears to have few risks when performed by a trained practitioner. However, massage therapists should take some precautions in people with certain health conditions.
- In some cases, pregnant women should avoid massage therapy. Talk with your health care provider before getting a massage if you’re pregnant.
- People with some conditions such as bleeding disorders or low blood platelet counts should avoid having forceful and deep tissue massage. People who take anticoagulants (also known as blood thinners) also should avoid them. Massage should not be done in any potentially weak area of the skin, such as wounds.
- Deep or intense pressure should not be used over an area where the patient has a tumor or cancer, unless approved by the patient’s health care provider.
NCCIH-sponsored studies have investigated the effects of massage on a variety of conditions including
- The effects of an 8-week course of Swedish massage compared to usual care on pain and function in adults with osteoarthritis of the knee
- Whether massage helps with generalized anxiety disorder
- The effect of massage therapy on cancer-related fatigue
- How massage therapy and progressive muscle relaxation compare for reducing chronic low-back pain in patients referred from primary care practices
- The frequency and length of massages needed to address neck pain.
Training, Licensing, and Certification
In the United States, 44 states and the District of Columbia regulate massage therapists. Cities, counties, or other local governments also may regulate massage. Training standards and requirements for massage therapists vary greatly by state and locality.
Most states that regulate massage therapists require them to have a minimum of 500 hours of training from an accredited training program. The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork certifies practitioners who pass a national examination and fulfill other requirements.
More to Consider
- Do not use massage therapy to replace conventional care or to postpone seeing a health care provider about a medical problem.
- If you have a medical condition and are unsure whether massage therapy would be appropriate for you, discuss your concerns with your health care provider, who may also be able to help you select a massage therapist.
- Ask about the training, experience, and credentials of the massage therapist you are considering. Also ask about the number of treatments that might be needed, the cost, and insurance coverage.
- For more tips on finding a complementary health practitioner, such as a massage therapist, see the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’s (NCCIH) Web page How To Find a Complementary Health Practitioner.
- Tell all your health care providers about any complementary and integrative health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will ensure coordinated and safe care.
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