Massage Therapy Versus Simple Touch to Improve Pain and Mood in Patients with Advanced Cancer

Symptom relief is central to end-of-life care; however, many terminally ill individuals experience serious pain and other physical and emotional symptoms. This study compares the use of massage therapy to relieve pain and other symptoms to simple touch therapy.

Primary outcomes were immediate and sustained change in pain. Secondary outcomes were immediate change in mood and 60-second heart and respiratory rates and sustained change in quality of life, symptom distress and analgesic medication use. Immediate outcomes were obtained just before and after each treatment session. Sustained outcomes were obtained at baseline and weekly for three weeks.

The study included 298 persons in the immediate outcome analysis and 348 in the sustained outcome analysis. A total of 82 persons did not receive any allocated study treatments (37 massage patients, 45 control participants). Both groups demonstrated immediate improvement in pain, control and mood. Massage was superior for both immediate pain and mood. No between-group mean differences occurred over time in sustained pain, brief pain inventory (BPI) worst pain, quality of life, symptom distress, or analgesic medication use.

The immediate outcome measures were obtained by unblinded study therapists, possibly leading to reporting bias and the overestimation of a beneficial effect. The generalizability to all patients with advanced cancer is uncertain. The differential beneficial effect of massage therapy over simple touch is not conclusive without a usual care control group.

Massage may have immediately beneficial effects on pain and mood among patients with advanced cancer. Given the lack of sustained effects and the observed improvements in both study groups, the potential benefits of attention and simple touch should also be considered in this patient population.