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Massage therapy

Massage therapy is a system of treatment that works by stroking, kneading, tapping or pressing the soft tissues of the body.

Massage therapy has been used for centuries. It aims to relax you mentally and physically. It may concentrate on the muscles, the soft tissues, or on the acupuncture points.

Massage techniques can range from being soft and gentle to vigorous and brisk. They may sometimes even be a bit uncomfortable. Therapists may treat your whole body or concentrate on a specific part, such as your head, neck or shoulders.

There are several types of massage:

  • Swedish massage – most common type of full body massage
  • aromatherapy massage
  • deep tissue massage – used for long standing, deep muscular problems
  • sports massage – used before or after sport or to help heal sports injuries
  • Shiatsu
  • neuromuscular massage – helps to balance the nervous system and the muscle
  • reflexology – applied to points on the hands and feet with the aim of improving the health of other parts of the body

How it works

Gentle forms of massage such as aromatherapy affect your nerve endings. This could release chemicals called endorphins which can reduce pain.

Stronger methods, such as Swedish massage, aim to stimulate your blood circulation and lymphatic system, relax muscles and ease knotted tissues that can cause pain and stiffness.

Some types of massage such as shiatsu may also gently stretch parts of your body to release stiffness.

Why people with cancer use it

One of the main reasons people with cancer use massage is because it helps them feel good. It is a way they feel they can help themselves.

Generally, massage therapy can help lift your mood, improve your sleep and enhance your well being. There is some evidence to help support these benefits.

Massage for people with cancer is promoted as a natural way to help you relax and cope with:

  • stress
  • anxiety
  • headaches
  • pain

What having massage involves

On your first visit, the therapist asks you some general questions about your health, lifestyle and medical history. They might ask to speak to your GP if they are concerned that massage could interfere with your health or any medicines you are taking. In general, it is rare that your doctor will say no.

When you have shiatsu massage you normally lie fully clothed on soft mats on the floor.

With most other massage therapies, you lie on a massage table for your treatment. You might need to take off your clothes, except for your underwear. Your therapist then covers you in a gown or large towels, exposing only the parts of your body that they are working on. 

When you have a whole body treatment, you lie face down for the first half of the treatment, then on your back for the rest of it.

Most massage sessions last an hour, but this can depend on your therapist. Your therapist might play some relaxing music during the session.

The amount of pressure your therapist applies when massaging you can vary greatly between the types of massage. Most people say that having a massage is very relaxing and soothing. But you should let your therapist know if you feel uncomfortable and want them to stop at any time.

Your massage therapist may advise you to drink a glass of water when your treatment has finished because you might feel thirsty.

Remember that your therapist should never massage your genital area or touch you in what you feel is a sexual way. You can stop the session and leave if you are uncomfortable at any time during your massage.

Possible side effects

Most people don’t have any side effects from having a massage. But you might feel a bit light headed, sleepy, tired or thirsty afterwards. Some people can feel a bit emotional or tearful for a while.

Research into massage and cancer

There is no scientific evidence that massage can treat cancer. But it is commonly used to help people feel better, and to reduce some cancer symptoms and treatment side effects.

Trials have been carried out to find out whether massage can help people with cancer but many are small studies.

A 2009 UK review looking at 14 trials suggested that massage can help to reduce symptoms such as pain, feeling sick (nausea), anxiety, depression, anger, stress and tiredness (fatigue). But the quality of some trials was poor.

In 2008, reviewers in Taiwan looked at 15 studies that used massage to reduce cancer pain. They found that although some studies seemed to show that massage helped, the evidence was not clear due to the poor quality of some studies.

Also in 2008, a US review looked at 22 studies that used massage to treat pain, tiredness (fatigue), anxiety, nausea and depression. They also found it difficult to be sure that massage worked due to the poor quality of some studies. The strongest evidence was that massage did seem to lower anxiety.

In 2011, a UK review looked specifically at trials using massage for women with breast cancer. There were 6 trials and the reviewers said that massage seemed useful as a supportive therapy. It seemed to help with symptoms of depression, pain and tiredness. But larger studies are needed.

In 2009, a German trial looked at massage therapy for physical discomfort and mood disturbances in women with breast cancer. 86 women took part. Half had massage and the other half did not.

The women who had massage reported less pain, tiredness and discomfort and less mood disturbances. The researchers reported that massage seemed to be a helpful treatment for women after breast surgery.

In 2011, Italian researchers looked at the use of massage in people with advanced cancer. They studied 20 trials and felt that massage therapy was a cost effective treatment that could help to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression in people with cancer who were seriously ill.

In 2012, a US study looked at teaching carers to give simple massage to people with cancer. The carers were given a DVD and an instruction manual. They were advised to practice at least 3 times a week. Another group of carers were advised to read to the person with cancer at least 3 times a week.

The study found that all the participants had significantly reduced cancer symptoms. But there was more reduction in the people who had massage.

The carers trained to give massage showed more confidence, comfort and skill in using touch and massage at the end of the study.

Who shouldn’t use massage therapy

People with cancer should avoid very deep massage. Gentler types may be safer.

Some people worry that having a massage when you have cancer may make the cancer cells travel to other parts of the body. But no research has proved this to be true.

Sometimes massage techniques might need to be adapted if you:

  • are having cancer treatment
  • are very weak
  • have bone fractures
  • have heart problems
  • suffer from arthritis
  • are pregnant or breastfeeding

Always talk to your cancer doctor or specialist nurse before using any type of commercial massage therapy. An adapted treatment offered from a therapist in a cancer care centre or hospice might be more appropriate for you.

Avoid massaging any area of your body where you are having radiotherapy to. And don’t have massage to areas where your skin is broken, bleeding or bruised.

You should avoid general massage therapy to your arms or legs if they are swollen because of lymphoedema. Lymphoedema is a build up of fluid due to the lymphatic system not draining properly. This might be a result of surgery to remove the lymph nodes, or damage to the lymph nodes or lymphatic vessels from radiotherapy.

There is a specific type of massage used for lymphoedema called manual lymphatic drainage (MLD). This is a very specialised treatment and people who need MLD are referred to a lymphoedema specialist by their doctor or specialist nurse.

The cost of massage therapy

Private massage treatments usually cost between £20 and £60 for a 30 to 90 minute session.

Many cancer centres and hospitals in the UK now offer different types of massage therapy free of charge. Therapists working in these centres are likely to have completed additional training and have ongoing supervision for their work.

Ask your nurse or doctor if massage therapy is available in the ward or centre where you're having your treatment. If it isn’t, they might be able to direct you to a voluntary organisation that does so for free or at a reduced cost.

Finding a therapist

It is important to make sure that your massage therapist is fully qualified and insured. Contact one of the organisations listed below and ask for a list of therapists in your area.

Questions to ask your CAM therapist

  • How many years of training have you had?
  • How long have you been practising?
  • Have you had training for treating and supporting people with cancer?
  • Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)

Useful organisations

The General Council for Massage Therapy is a group of organisations working together to develop a common set of practice and training standards. They aim to have one professional body holding a register of UK massage therapists. They have details of all the massage therapy organisations that are members on their website.

Phone: 0870 850 4452

CNHC is the UK regulator for complementary healthcare practitioners. It protects the public by giving them access to a list of practitioners who have met national standards of competence and practice. Registered practitioners can use the CNHC quality mark on certificates and publicity materials. Most NHS services only use CNHC registered practitioners.

46-48 East Smithfield

Phone: 0203 668 0406

The Federation of Holistic Therapists is the largest professional association for complementary therapists. They have a register of therapists who are qualified, insured, and who follow the FHT strict Code of Conduct and Professional Practice.

Phone: 023 8062 4350

Last reviewed: 
12 Jan 2015
  • Complete Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Therapies (2nd edition)
    American Cancer Society, 2009

  • Massage therapy for cancer palliation and supportive care: a systematic review of randomised clinical trials
    E Ernst
    Supportive Care in Cancer, 2009. Volume 17, Issue 4

  • Massage therapy reduces physical discomfort and improves mood disturbances in women with breast cancer
    M Listing and others
    Psychooncology, 2009. Volume 18, Issue 12

  • Massage therapy for breast cancer patients: a systematic review
    MS Lee and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2011. Volume 2011, Issue 6

  • Touch, caring and cancer: randomized controlled trial of a multimedia caregiver education program
    W Collinge and others
    Supportive Care in Cancer, 2013. Volume 21, Issue 5

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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