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Massage Therapy Research

Pat Hoffman suffered for years from osteoarthritis in her spine and hands and in her left shoulder, where she had the most pain and loss of motion. Fortunately for Hoffman, bi-weekly massage treatments proved to be extremely helpful in reducing tension and pain, which in turn helped to improve her mobility. Massage increased her energy, and the pain no longer awakens her during the night. "Usually the massage gives me a real high," Hoffman said. "Occasionally, I may experience several hours of pain after the treatment, but this goes away and is not a real problem."

Hoffman's improved arthritis condition following massage therapy is not surprising. Recent arthritis research conducted by the Touch Research Institutes (TRI) at the University of Miami indicated the positive effects of massage therapy in reducing hand pain and increasing grip strength among hand arthritis sufferers.
In that study, 22 adults ranging in age from 20 to 65 with wrist/hand arthritis were randomly assigned to a massage therapy or a standard treatment control group, which did not receive therapy. The massage therapy group received massage on the affected wrist/hand once a week for a four-week period and also conducted self-massage at home daily. After the first and last sessions, the massage therapy group had lower anxiety and depressed mood scores and by the end of the study reported less pain and greater grip strength. Moreover, the massage therapy group showed greater improvement than the standard treatment group on all these measures across the study period.
Today, many consumers like Hoffman are increasingly turning to massage therapy to improve their health and feel better. An American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) study indicates that in 2004, 47 million Americans received a massage. Over 21 percent of Americans discuss massage therapy with their doctors, and of those, 60 percent said it was their physician who recommended that they seek massage as a form of therapy.
Kathy Gruver, LMT, NHC, Santa Barbara, Calif., agrees that more and more patients are seeking massage to treat a specific physical problem. "I estimate that 85 or 90 percent of clients who come to me have a specific medical condition, such as frozen shoulder, carpal tunnel, or sciatica. I get a lot of people who are seeking massage for stress too, but more and more people are looking to massage to help with pain relief."
As a result of the growing consumer enthusiasm for massage therapy to 'feel good', researchers, doctors, and practitioners are conducting research in many areas of healthcare to see whether massage provides clear evidence of physiological benefits. Because the impact of these studies may have far-reaching implications for healthcare, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) have both funded research.
Since founding TRI in 1992, executive director Dr. Tiffany Field and her associates have researched the effects of massage therapy at all stages of life in over 90 studies, covering such areas as enhanced growth in pre-term infants, diminished pain in Fibromyalgia patients, increased pulmonary function in Asthma patients, and enhanced alertness and performance, such as on math computations.
Massage therapy for enhanced immune function is another key area of TRI research. In 2003, TRI concluded that massage therapy increases the number of natural killer cells known to destroy cancer cells in women with breast cancer, thereby bolstering patient's immune function. A total of 58 breast cancer patients from the Miami area who were in the early stages of cancer participated in the study. One group received 20-minute massage therapy twice a week for five weeks; others in a control group received no massage therapy. At the end of the five-week period, blood tests indicated an 11 percent increase in the number of natural killer cells that destroy cancer cells among the participants who received massage therapy, a statistically significant increase.
To insure that there is more research in the field and that the research reflects massage therapy as practiced, the Massage Therapy Foundation, founded in 1990 by the American Massage Therapy Association, established a massage therapy research agenda. The Massage Therapy Foundation has created a massage research infrastructure and is funding studies on the safety and efficacy of massage therapy, the physiological (or other) mechanism by which massage therapy achieves its effects, massage from a wellness paradigm, and the profession of therapeutic massage.
Representative of the type and range of research it supports, in 2005 the Massage Therapy Foundation funded a study on "The Effects of Massage on Brain Function using Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) Imaging." In this study, researchers used SPECT Imaging to determine which regions of the brain are affected by massage and compared the different effects between light massage versus moderate/deep massage. In 2006, the organization provided a grant for a study entitled "Evaluation of the Effects of Five Minute Foot Massages on Physiological Measures and Subjective Ratings in Pediatric Intensive Care Unit Patients." The study's aim is to determine whether five-minute foot massages can reduce stress (by measuring heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate) among pediatric intensive care unit patients, ages three to 17.
Diana Thompson, Massage Therapy Foundation president, said, "We are still scratching the surface of massage research. There is great promise given the dramatic increase in the number of massage studies published over the last decade, but we must continue to push for massage therapists' participation in the research to ensure that the studies represent massage as it is practiced."
Not only is today's research varied, it is global. Leading major educational and medical institutions are conducting studies around the world to determine the role of massage therapy in such specialized areas as the "Efficacy of Therapeutic Touch in Treating Pregnant Inpatients Who Have a Chemical Dependency," conducted at British Columbia Women's Hospital, in Vancouver, Canada. In another example, at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Department of Nursing and Wong Chuk Hang Hospital, in Hung Hom, Kowloon are looking into the effects of slow-stroke back massage on anxiety and shoulder pain in elderly stroke patients.

Medical Community Takes Note

In response to the results of the research, many in the medical profession are more willing to accept massage therapy as part of a patient's healthcare treatment. According to the AMTA, 54 percent of physicians and family practitioners in the U.S. would encourage patients to pursue massage therapy as a complement to medical treatment.
"There has been a dramatic increase on the part of the medical profession in the acceptance of massage therapy as part of a patient's healthcare treatments," said Dr. Dale Healey, dean of the School of Massage Therapy at Northwestern Health Services University in Bloomington, Minn. "Because medical doctors speak and breathe research, I think they are encouraged by the clinical results they see and more comfortable referring their patients to massage therapy."
A partnership established in 2005 between the Northwestern Health Services University and Abbott Northwestern Hospital's Institute for Health and Healing (IHH) is evidence of this growing acceptance of massage therapy by the medical profession. "The IHH executive director wanted to advance the concept of a healing environment that included integrative medicine, and so approached us," said Healey. Today, a team of therapists and massage therapy students from the University offers massage therapy, along with healing touch, acupuncture, guided imagery, and reflexology to both hospital inpatients and outpatients.
IHH executive director, Lori Knutson explained that massage therapy referral could come from the physician as well as a nurse, the patient, or a family member. In the case of IHH, the massage therapy is not covered by insurance in the inpatient setting, but by hospital operations and philanthropy.
Based on the success of the IHH program, in 2006 Northwestern Health Services University established similar partnerships with Regions Hospital in St. Paul and Minnesota Oncology Hematology Practice Associates in Minneapolis.
"The growing trend of bringing massage therapy into these environments and to these patients is very exciting and satisfying," said Healey. "Individuals in these environments often have tremendous pain and anxiety, two symptoms that massage therapy has been shown to alleviate. Repeatedly, patients report dramatic improvement in their reported levels of pain and anxiety after even brief massage therapy treatments. Offering massage therapy in these environments may be a part of what our ailing healthcare system needs."
Whitney Lowe, director of the Orthopedic Massage Education and Research Institute in Sisters, Ore., also believes there is more acceptance and awareness of massage by health professionals. "There is a trend increasing among the younger physicians to accept massage therapy predominantly because it's starting to be mentioned more among the general populous and medical schools are starting to teach CAM therapies," he said, but added that he still believes there is a long way to go.
Gruver agrees. "I know a lot of doctors, and the younger ones in particular think massage is great. They may not be reading all the research reports but they hear about it and that helps to increase their acceptance." The signs are clear that we can expect to see even more research on massage therapy in the coming years.

Jean Shea is the founder and CEO of BIOTONE, www.biotone.com, the leading manufacturer of superior quality professional massage oils, creams, lotions, gels, as well as spa body treatment products. Shea founded the company in 1980 and continues today in the management of the company, along with the creation and manufacturing all of the company's formulas.

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