Medical Conditions

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 (also known as relaxation massage)
    This technique involves the use of long, smooth strokes and deep circular movements that knead and compress the muscles.
  • Neuromuscular massage (also known as therapeutic massge)
    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 with soothing background music. A person usually lies down on a special massage table or sits in a special chair for a seated massage. Massage is a group of manual techniques consisting of both fixed and moveable pressure.

In 43 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 38 of those states and the District of Columbia as a requirement to practice.

In order to become nationally certified to practice massage therapy, a practitioner must:

  • Complete a minimum of 500 hours of instruction

  • Demonstrate mastery of core skills, abilities, and knowledge

  • Pass a standardized NCBTMB exam

  • Uphold NCBTMB's Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics

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, clotting disorders, recent abdominal surgery, 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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Last reviewed: 6/27/2013