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Massage increases the quality of life of patients with terminal illnesses


10 March 2004
Massage substantially decreases the stress, pain, anxiety and depression felt by people in hospital with a terminal illness, a ground-breaking study by Southern Cross University (SCU) has found.

The study by Honours student Larisa Barnes in SCU's School of Natural and Complementary Medicine was the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere. It was carried out at St Vincent’s Hospital in Lismore in northern NSW.

“It was the first time in the southern hemisphere that there were naturopathy students working in a hospital on a university research project, so it was a big breakthrough,” Paul Orrock, Head of SCU’s School of Natural and Complementary Medicine, said.

“It shows there is great potential to use natural and complementary medicine in improving quality of life for patients during the dying process,” Mr Orrock said.

The study involved third year SCU Bachelor of Naturopathy students giving 50 palliative care patients massage treatment, ranging from foot or hand massage to full body massage, depending on the individual patient. The patients were aged between 37 and 96, with an average age of 69. Ninety four per cent had some form of cancer.

Ms Barnes asked people to rate their levels of pain, anxiety, stress and depression before and after massage treatment, using a scale of 0 to 10.

“Statistical analysis showed that significant changes in people's levels of pain, anxiety, stress and depression occurred after massage treatment,” she said. “For example, average pain levels across the group fell from 3.25 out of 10, to 1.58 out of 10.”

Patients were also interviewed after the massage, on their perceptions of benefits or hazards of massage treatment, and its effectiveness.

“Patients felt massage therapy to be of great benefit to them,” Ms Barnes said. The benefits fell into three themes: ‘relational’, that is the benefits that arose out of the therapeutic relationship with the practitioner, as well as emotional benefits and physical benefits of massage.

“The significance participants placed on the human interaction was one of the biggest outcomes of the study for me: just having someone listen to them, or be present with them was considered to have a healing benefit and made them feel good and less lonely or isolated,” she said.

Other perceived emotional and physical benefits included: ‘increase in emotional wellbeing’, ‘increase in mental and physical relaxation’, ‘decrease in stress’, ‘decrease in anxiety’, ‘moisturises the skin’, ‘decrease in pain’, ‘increase in peripheral circulation’ and ‘increase in feelings of strength’.

Jenny McFarlane, Clinical Nurse Consultant for the Palliative Care Service at St Vincent's Private Hospital, said the hospital was very pleased to be associated with the study.

“It’s been very beneficial to our patients to have the students come in and give them a massage: we’ve appreciated it and so have they,” Ms McFarlane said.

Ms Barnes’ research was jointly supervised by Mr Orrock and Dr John Stevens, who, until last year, had a joint appointment with SCU’s School of Nursing and St Vincent's Hospital.

“Although massage therapy is being used as part of palliative care treatment in many places, few studies have assessed its effectiveness quantitatively or in a study of this size,” he said.

“If natural and complementary therapies are to be incorporated into the hospital system they need to meet the demand for evidence-based outcomes and proven clinical effectiveness. This study meets those criteria in proving the benefits of massage for palliative care patients.”

Ms Barnes completed her Naturopathy degree at SCU in 2000 and has been working full-time as a naturopath in Lismore since, as well as completing her Honours research last year.

For more information contact SCU media liaison Sara Crowe Ph: 02 6620 3144 or Brigid Veale Ph: 02 6659 3006.