Massage: A Useful Therapy in Life-Limiting Illness
Although massage is a great way to help you relax if you’re under a lot of pressure, relieve aches and pains, and help you to tone up, massage therapy is not just beneficial for people who are in reasonably good health. If you have a diagnosis of a more serious condition, particularly one that may be life-limiting, massage can offer a suitable complementary therapy to the treatments you may already receive from your doctor. There is certainly evidence that when there is no cure for your illness, massage can help to improve the symptoms you experience and reduce your suffering. While there are a variety of life-threatening conditions that may potentially benefit from massage therapy, from severe heart failure to progressive conditions that affect your nervous system, here we focus on the research conducted into the positive impact of massage in cancer and HIV.
Massage and cancer
The number of cases of many cancers are on the increase and at present around 40% of us are predicted to develop cancer during our lifetime. While the growing incidence of cancer in part relates to poor lifestyle choices in relation to diet, exercise, smoking and drinking habits, even when making healthy choices it isn’t possible to prevent cancer altogether, as a range of factors contribute to its development. If you are unfortunate enough to develop cancer, you may develop a range of unpleasant symptoms, and while effective treatments are available, these are not without their side-effects and the psychological impact of a cancer diagnosis can also take its toll. Thankfully, complementary therapies such as massage can offer some relief from the problems associated with cancer and are a safe adjunct to medical treatment.
Chemotherapy is effective against rapidly dividing cancerous cells, but this also means that it destroys healthy cells in the body that have a high growth rate. For instance, your white blood cells drop in number, which places you at increased risk of infections, which is not only unpleasant for you, but can delay further treatment. However, there is evidence that cancer patients who receive massage alongside chemotherapy can benefit from a stronger immune system. An example of this was published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, where patients with colorectal cancer undergoing chemotherapy also received a week’s course of massage using aromatherapy oils. The study showed that massage significantly increased the number of white blood cells in the patients’ blood, but not only this, as they also benefited from reduced symptoms, pain and lower stress levels.
Other research also backs up improvements in symptoms among cancer patients receiving massage. For example, a study reported in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, where people with cancer that had spread to other parts of the body received on average three sessions of massage, showed they experienced reduced pain and improved sleep. This is helpful, as pain is a common symptom that accompanies cancer, especially during its advanced stages, and poor sleep may occur due to the combination of physical symptoms and worry felt by cancer patients. The study also found that participants reported improved quality of life, which is often compromised during the progression of cancer.
Massage and HIV
Close to 800,000 people in the United States have HIV and receiving this diagnosis is not easy to accept. Although an early death is not inevitable thanks to more effective drugs to manage the spread of the virus, a later diagnosis increases the risk of ill-health and the complications associated with HIV. Both physical and psychological symptoms occur, which can reduce quality of life, though with the help of massage therapy it may be possible to reduce the impact of these.
For instance, low mood is common following a diagnosis of HIV, as you may worry about the toll the virus will take on your health and your relationships with those people close to you. While support groups are invaluable, complementary therapies may offer a useful addition to any treatment prescribed by your doctor to cope with depressed mood. Massage therapy shows promise for this, as highlighted in a study where patients with HIV received massage for an hour twice weekly. The research published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine showed that after four, six and eight weeks, patients receiving massage reported a significant improvement in depression.
A common complication of HIV is peripheral neuropathy, which leads to numbness, tingling and pain. Although medications are available to manage these symptoms, various non-medical options may also play a role in its treatment. This is highlighted in the journal AIDS Care, which discusses massage as one of the options often used by patients with HIV to provide symptom relief from peripheral neuropathy.
As massage has the potential to enhance immune function, this may prove useful for patients with HIV to help slow the progression of their illness, as it is the cells of the immune system that HIV invades. Although research into this has focused on younger people with HIV, the results are promising. For example, a study of children with HIV who received massage therapy twice weekly for three months benefited from either stable white blood cell counts or an improvement in their number of white blood cells. Starting massage soon after diagnosis may therefore be an effective way to preserve immune function in HIV.
Submitted by Jenni Waters
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