Massage Eases Anxiety, but No Better Than Simple Relaxation Does
A new randomized trial shows that on average, three months after receiving a series of 10 massage sessions, patients had half the symptoms of anxiety. This improvement resembles that previously reported with psychotherapy, medications, or both. But the trial, published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, also found massage to be no more effective than simple relaxation in a room alone with soft, soothing music.
“We were surprised to find that the benefits of massage were no greater than those of the same number of sessions of ‘thermotherapy’ or listening to relaxing music,” said Karen J. Sherman, PhD, MPH, a senior investigator at Group Health Research Institute. “This suggests that the benefits of massage may be due to a generalized relaxation response.”
Massage therapy is among the most popular complementary and alternative medical (CAM) treatments for anxiety, she added. But this is the first rigorous trial to assess how effective massage is for patients with generalized anxiety disorder.
The trial randomly assigned 68 Group Health patients with generalized anxiety disorder to 10 one-hour sessions in pleasant, relaxing environments, each presided over by a licensed massage therapists who delivered either massage or one of two control treatments:
* Relaxation therapy: breathing deeply while lying down
* Thermotherapy: having arms and legs wrapped intermittently with heating pads and warm towels
All three treatments were provided while lying down on a massage table in a softly lighted room with quiet music. All participants received a handout on practicing deep breathing daily at home. Unlike the two control treatments, massage was specifically designed to enhance the function of the parasympathetic nervous system and relieve symptoms of anxiety including muscle tension.
Using a standard rating scale in interviews, the researchers asked the patients about the psychological and physical effects of their anxiety right after the 12-week treatment period ended and three months later, Dr. Sherman said.
All three of the groups reported that their symptoms of anxiety had decreased by about 40 percent by the end of treatment — and by about 50 percent three months later. In addition to the decline in anxiety, the patients also reported fewer symptoms of depression and less worry and disability. The research team detected no differences among the three groups; but the trial did not include a control group that got no treatment at all.
“Treatment in a relaxing room is much less expensive than the other treatments (massage or thermotherapy), so it might be the most cost-effective option for people with generalized anxiety disorder who want to try a relaxation-oriented complementary medicine therapy,” Dr. Sherman said.
Depression and Anxiety, 2010; DOI: 10.1002/da.20671
Effectiveness of therapeutic massage for generalized anxiety disorder: a randomized controlled trial.
Karen J. Sherman, Evette J. Ludman, Andrea J. Cook, Rene J. Hawkes, Peter P. Roy-Byrne, Susan Bentley, Marissa Z. Brooks, Daniel C. Cherkin
massage • therapy • therapeutic use • clinical trials • randomized • generalized anxiety disorder • relaxation • breathing exercises
Background: Although massage is one of the most popular complementary and alternative medical (CAM) treatments for anxiety, its effectiveness has never been rigorously evaluated for a diagnosed anxiety disorder. This study evaluates the effectiveness of therapeutic massage for persons with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Methods: Sixty-eight persons with GAD were randomized to therapeutic massage (n=23), thermotherapy (n=22), or relaxing room therapy (n=23) for a total of 10 sessions over 12 weeks. Mean reduction in anxiety was measured by the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale (HARS). Secondary outcomes included 50% reduction in HARS and symptom resolution of GAD, changes in depressive symptoms (Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-8)), worry and GAD-related disability. We compared changes in these outcomes in the massage and control groups posttreatment and at 6 months using generalized estimating equation (GEE) regression. Results: All groups had improved by the end of treatment (adjusted mean change scores for the HARS ranged from -10.0 to -13.0; P<.001) and maintained their gains at the 26-week followup. No differences were seen between groups (P=.39). Symptom reduction and resolution of GAD, depressive symptoms, worry and disability showed similar patterns. Conclusions: Massage was not superior to the control treatments, and all showed some clinically important improvements, likely due to some beneficial but generalized relaxation response. Because the relaxing room treatment is substantially less expensive than the other treatments, a similar treatment packaged in a clinically credible manner might be the most cost effective option for persons with GAD who want to try relaxation-oriented CAM therapies. Depression and Anxiety 0:1-10, 2010. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.