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Is massage rubbing people up the right way?

Over the last ten or so years, there has been a significant increase in the popularity of massage, particularly among the baby boomers who are determined to defy the passage of time and stay active. The question of interest to all of us is whether we should simply reach for ultram or an equivalent painkiller when we feel aches and pains, or should we follow the advice of our elders (and betters) and have a professional give us a regular rubdown?

There has been a reasonably significant amount of research into the use of massage within the hospital and hospice environments. For example, a recent study by the School of medicine at the University of Colorado took a sample of 380 advanced-stage cancer patients with moderate to severe pain. They found that those who received massage therapy (MT) felt immediate and continuing pain relief and an improvement in their mood. For patients with a terminal disease, even a small improvement lifts the quality of life. But this study highlights a difficulty with this kind of research. A part of the benefit comes from the social contact with the therapist. It is not appropriate to measure MT against no therapy or only against the use of a painkiller like ultram. So most studies have some physical touching not amounting to MT given to the control group. This is not the same as a placebo control in the testing of drugs. Worse, in some studies involving the massage of babies, you cannot ask whether they feel better. The only test is of how much they cry before, during and after therapy.

However, we can refer to a major piece of research published in 2004 by researchers from the University of Illinois. This was a piece of meta-analysis, i.e. it reanalyzed the data from thirty-seven previously published studies. Thus, even though the results from one clinical study may be relatively unscientific, better trends emerge when you look at multiple studies. The results are encouraging. Even a single session of MT reduces the physical symptoms of high blood pressure and improves physical mobility. However, mood is only improved after multiple sessions. The researchers report that the majority of patients undergoing regular sessions of MT over a period of several months assess their pain at lower levels and report reductions in the levels of anxiety and depression equivalent to the outcomes expected from a full course of psychotherapy. So even though there is much work to be done to improve the research methods used to evaluate MT, there is clear evidence that more use should be made of professionally delivered MT in both the treatment of specific conditions where mobility is affected, and more generally where pain is affecting mood. This does not mean abandoning painkillers like ultram, but using them in a more controlled and responsible way.

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