Massage Therapy

Massage is a therapeutic technique that has a history beginning over 5000 years ago. Civilizations in the east and west have documented that massage heals injuries, relieves pain, and helps to relieve stress and anxiety. While its roots may have been anchored in cultural healing systems in India and China, in the United States, massage therapy is often considered part of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), although it does have some conventional uses. 

Current literature indicates that outcomes experienced by patients using massage include:

  • Improved quality of life
  • Improved ability to function and move in their environment
  • Decreased pain
  • Decreased tension
  • Improved body image and understanding of their bodily sensations.

People with cancer often use massage to:

  • Address problems with lymphedema associated with surgeries or removal of lymph nodes
  • Release scar tissue and increase range of motion due to surgical adhesions
  • Improve overall health and wellbeing and strengthen their immune system
  • Improve mind-body connection and to reconnect with their body
  • Decrease the tension and stress that often accompanies cancer treatments, the threat of cancer and fear associated with this kind of disease

Why should I use Massage Therapy?

Massage therapy may:

  • Relieve muscle tension by lengthening and broadening the muscle fibers
  • Increase range of motion in joints
  • Release scar tissue that can cause pain and dysfunction through deep specific friction, stripping and myofascial release
  • Decrease lymphedema by using techniques that encourage the flow of lymph through the channels
  • Decrease pain and headaches that are associated with muscle tension. For example pain around the eye and in the temple or jaw could be because there is referred pain from the neck muscles (SCM, scalenes, levators). When massage is applied to these muscles, headaches and other facial or head pain is relieved.
  • Increase the mind-body connection because the person receiving massage has the time to pay attention to the sensations of the body and what those mean and where they hold stress

How does Massage Therapy work?

Massage therapists work in a variety of settings, including private offices, hospitals, nursing homes, studios, and sport and fitness facilities. Some also travel to patients’ homes or workplaces. They usually try to provide a calm, soothing environment. 

There are numerous theories about how massage therapy may affect the body. For example, the “gate control theory” suggests that massage may provide stimulation that helps to block pain signals sent to the brain. Other theories suggest that massage might stimulate the release of certain chemicals in the body, such as serotonin or endorphins, or cause beneficial mechanical changes in the body. However, additional studies are needed to test the various theories. 

There are many different types of massage, each done for different reasons/purposes:

  • The most common type of massage is Swedish massage This therapy is a lighter touch massage and is used for stress relief, reducing muscle tension and increasing circulation.
  • Sports massage is another type that is deeper, more vigorous technique, which is focused on range of motion. Sports massage can be used pre-event to warm-up the muscle and increase circulation that improve performance. Post-even sports massage can flush lactic acid, cool the body and restore the muscle to a healthy condition.
  • Deep tissue massage is used to release scar tissue, relieve trigger points, which are areas of the muscle which do not release through normal function. Muscle filaments typically slide and release during action, but in dysfunctional muscle tissues, things get stuck. The therapist will feel for these points and apply deep pressure for a period of time. Once they release, the client feels an immediate release of tension – the “aahh” sensation. Deep tissue massage is also used for stripping or removing scar tissue and adhesions that occur through injury or surgery.
  • There is prenatal massage that is focused on the needs and special concerns of that population.

Is Massage Therapy right for me?

Typically a massage therapy session will be 1 to 1.5 hours. Some therapists will even come to your home to deliver the therapy, bringing their own table. When you first meet the therapists, you will receive an intake form that includes a medical history section. Please be very thorough in your description of your cancer treatments. Once this is filled out, your therapist will discuss your goals for treatment and your concerns. If there is treatment “red flags” you will be asked specific questions so that the therapy is safe for you. Then you will be asked to disrobe although how much you decide to remove is completely up to you. You will be asked to lay face up or down on the table and under the sheets. Only the areas that are being directly massage will be undraped. And, at no point should the client be totally exposed. When you’re finished the therapist will leave the room so that you can get dressed privately. They will then return, give you water and provide instructions for “homework” that will aid your recovery...

How do I choose a Massage provider/class?

It is important to consider what you want to accomplish with massage when you are contacting the therapist and making your appointments. Some types are very specialized and only certain therapists will be able to do the massage that best suits your needs. Be vocal with your desired needs and concerns so you and the therapist are on the same page and can work together to find the best type of massage that works for you.

How do I talk to my healthcare provider about using Massage Therapy?

It is always important to consult with your physician if you have concerns about whether massage would be good for you or might cause harm. Your massage therapist is also a good source of information. 

It is also important to inform your massage therapist if you have had any lymph nodes removed, if you are currently going through chemotherapy or radiation, if you have lymphoma, metastatic cancer, or if you have any clotting issues or are on anticoagulants. 

Tell your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use, like Massage Therapy. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.

Have others with cancer used Massage Therapy?

Cancer patients using massage therapy have stated:

"As a cancer patient…for many years, I know I have tension, muscle cramps, and anxiety from the treatments and the chemo drugs. The massage unlocks all these tensions and makes the days… a lot nicer. Healing comes in many forms and… massage is an additional benefit." 

“I can attest to the benefit of massage during and after cancer treatment. It relieved many of the troublesome effects and the human touch made me relax.”

Are there any Massage Therapy precautions I should know about?

  • If you have any lymph nodes removed, there is a special protocol to use. Please inform your therapist if this is part of your history.
  • Massage is contraindicated in recurrence most cancers and deep massage is not appropriate for someone undergoing chemotherapy or radiation. If there is cancer in your body, you don’t want to encourage its spread.
  • Massage is always contraindicated in any kind of lymphoma. If yours is in remission, massage should be very specific and focused.
  • Massage is always contraindicated in metastatic cancers that are being actively treated. In you’re in hospice care, massage becomes a personal and one that is decide with your physicians, family and therapists.
  • If you have clotting issues associated with cancer or are on anticoagulants, you want to be to relay this to the therapist so that deep techniques are avoided.

What is Massage Therapy like?

Matthew Koithan , Licensed Massage Therapist
Alexa Dessables , BSN Student , UA College of Nursing
Katie Messer , BSN Student , UA College of Nursing