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Cancer Health Library : Oncology

Alternative Therapy - Massage Therapy

What is massage therapy?

Rubbing areas that hurt is a natural human response. Massage therapy is based on the same principle: rubbing and manipulating muscles, which increases blood circulation and enhances relaxation. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) considers massage therapy to be a manipulative and body-based method of complementary and alternative medicine.

Picture of a massage therapist giving a massage

Can massage therapy help people with cancer?

There is no evidence that massage therapy has any helpful effect on cancer as a disease, but short periods of massage can provide physical and emotional benefits for cancer patients. Massage can provide relief of muscle tension, low back pain, chronic fatigue, anxiety, and depression.

How does massage therapy work?

Massaging muscles and soft tissue stimulates nerves, increases blood flow, and relieves stress in the muscles.

What are the different massage therapy techniques?

Over the centuries, several massage techniques have developed, including the following:

  • Swedish massage
    This technique involves the use of long, smooth strokes and deep circular movements that knead and compress the muscles.
  • Neuromuscular massage
    Like Swedish massage, this technique includes stroking and kneading the muscles, but neuromuscular massage reaches deeper muscles more effectively.
  • Oriental massage
    Oriental massage involves finger pressure designed to treat specific points on the body.
  • Shiatsu
    Shiatsu is a Japanese form of oriental massage that combines pressure and stretching techniques.
  • Thai massage
    This massage technique involves the use of yoga and certain Chinese traditional medicine methods.

Many therapists combine all types of massage to relieve stress, anxiety, and muscle tension, and to improve circulation. Massages are usually given in a quiet room, sometimes with soothing background music or aromatic oils to enhance the relaxation response. The therapist usually asks you to lie down on a special massage table or in a special massage chair called seated massage and will use his/her hands to stroke and apply pressure to your body.

Massage therapists are licensed in 38 states and the District of Columbia. Most states require 500 or more hours of education and a licensing examination. Credentials must be renewed every four years through continuing education practice.

In 38 states and the District of Columbia massage therapy is regulated by law with specific guidelines. The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) has set up standards of practice and also administers a national certification examination. It is used in 33 of those states and the District of Columbia as a requirement to practice.

Are there any possible problems or complications associated with massage therapy?

Generally speaking, massage is safe but should be avoided with certain conditions such as joint inflammation, injury, open wounds, skin infections, low blood counts, or phlebitis. Consult your physician regarding those conditions for which massage therapy would not be recommended.

Massage therapy, as an addition to your cancer treatment plan, has the potential to be pleasant and productive, but should not replace the care and treatment provided by your cancer care team. Always consult your physician for more information.

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