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NCCIH Clinical Digest

for health professionals

Massage Therapy for Health

December 2018
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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.

What the Science Says: 
Massage Therapy for Health

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.

Read more about the research on massage therapy for low-back pain

Massage therapy may provide short-term benefits for neck or shoulder pain.

Read more about the research on massage therapy 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.

Read more about the research on massage therapy for osteoarthritis

Only a small number of studies have looked at massage for headache, and results have not been consistent.

Read more about the research on massage therapy for headache

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.

Read more about the research on massage therapy for cancer symptoms and treatment side effects

Results of research suggest that massage therapy may be helpful for some fibromyalgia symptoms.

Read more about the research on massage therapy for 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.

Read more about the research on massage therapy for HIV/AIDS symptoms

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.

Read more about the research on massage therapy for infant care

Clinical Guidelines

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.nih.gov. 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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