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Massage Therapy

By Steven Novella, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine

Massage therapy is the manipulation of body tissues to promote wellness and reduce pain and stress. It involves a variety of light-touch and deep-touch techniques, from stroking and kneading (as used in Swedish massage) to applying pressure to specific points (as used in Shiatsu, acupressure, and neuromuscular massage).

Medicinal claims

Massage therapists claim to help the musculoskeletal, nervous, and circulatory systems of the body. Other healing effects of massage include the benefits of caring and human touch, basic needs that are unmet in the lives of many people.

Massage has been shown to be helpful in the following:

  • Relieving pain, such as that caused by back injuries, muscle soreness, and fibromyalgia

  • Treating anxiety, fatigue, pain, nausea, and vomiting in people with cancer

Massage may be helpful for the following:

  • Helping the brain, nerves, and behavior of low-birth-weight infants develop normally (although the evidence is weak)

  • Preventing injury to the mother’s genitals during childbirth

  • Relieving chronic constipation

  • Controlling asthma

Massage may lower stress and anxiety.

Possible side effects

Precautions for massage therapy and other therapies that involve forceful manipulation include the following:

  • Bare skin should not be massaged in people who have infectious or contagious skin diseases, open wounds, burns, high fever, or tumors.

  • Massage can cause bruising and bleeding in people who have a low platelet count or a bleeding disorder.

  • Pressure should not be put on bones affected by osteoporosis or cancer that has spread to the bones (metastatic cancer).