Specialized Massages to Treat Medical Conditions

The power of touch can help ease the pain of many medical problems

What if there was a cost-effective way to treat pain without side effects? What if we had a way to help mental illness without medication? The ancient healing art of massage therapy has been used for centuries to relax muscles, lower stress, make us feel better, and aid in pain management for a variety of medical problems and other special needs. Today, more and more massage therapists are helping people who suffer from medical conditions from arthritis to cancer.

While studies may be preliminary or conflicting, evidence suggests that massage therapy can be beneficial for pain and other symptoms associated with many medical conditions, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Below we’ve compiled a list of conditions that people often seek relief through massage therapy. For more details about what massage therapists must consider when working with someone who has a medical condition or other special needs, visit the Massage for Health Conditions page on the American Massage Therapy Association website.

Pain (including lower back and neck pain)

Unfortunately, at some time in our lives, we all experience pain. Perhaps the most common pain points are the back and neck. The NIH has studied the effects of massage in several studies dating back to 2008 and have found sufficient evidence that massage may help with chronic neck and back pain.

In one trial, participants were given either a structural massage (soft tissue techniques), relaxation massage (similar to a Swedish massage), or standard medical care (medications). Participants in both massage groups saw better relief of symptoms and were better able to perform daily activities than the standard medical care group.

The same effects have been seen in patients who suffer from other painful conditions, such as Fibromyalgia. While a 2010 review said massage therapists should be careful not to cause pain in these patients, massages did provide temporary relief of pain and fatigue.

Many people suffer from debilitating headaches, including migraines. More studies need to be performed but initial studies of the relieving effects of massage on migraines seem to be promising.


While many cancer patients must endure medical treatments and surgeries, massage therapy can provide relief of pain, relaxation, and a mood boost. Massage therapists need to be sensitive to the needs of these patients. Therapists should avoid massaging:

  • Open wounds
  • Over the tumor site
  • Blood clots
  • Sensitive areas following radiation

The therapist should also make the following modifications:

  • Schedule a longer time for intake to discuss the specifics of the client’s diagnosis and treatment
  • Determine what surgical procedure were done or if the client suffered side effects to chemotherapy or other medication
  • Ensure the client was given permission to have a massage by the oncologist
  • Let the client determine the amount of time for the massage—many do not want or need a full session
  • Give them the ability to reschedule if they are not well enough to handle a massage
  • Be aware of the client’s emotional needs

Mental health

With more and more people reporting bouts of depression and/or anxiety, science suggests that massage may help alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression. Recent studies have shown massage can improve mood and provide similar benefits to those of psychotherapy.

It can have similar affects on anxiety. Massage may be able to give clients who suffer from anxiety a sense of calm, reduce anxiety before and after medical procedures, and increase the neurotransmitters associated with lowering anxiety while decreasing hormones associated with increasing anxiety. An NIH study also confirmed the benefits of using massage as a cost-effective treatment that utilizes relaxation to help anxiety.

Pregnancy/Infant care

As woman progress in their pregnancy, they often become uncomfortable and may suffer from lower back, sciatic, or pelvic pain. Some women have found relief through massage therapy and physical therapy. Massage therapists should be trained in prenatal massage techniques and modify in the following ways:

  • Get approval from the client’s obstetrician
  • Allow for longer intake to discuss areas of discomfort or any pregnancy complications
  • Understand the physiologic changes caused by pregnancy as it progresses
  • Use side-lying position that keep the mother and baby safe
  • Use the appropriate massage technique (typically Swedish massage with long strokes)
  • Avoid deep tissue massages

Pre-term babies may also benefit from massage. The NIH found that preterm infants who were massaged using moderate pressure showed improved weight gain.


Many people seek massage relief for arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis of the knee, to help reduce pain in their joints and muscles. A 2012 clinical trial built on a previous study to determine the most optimal massage regimen for those suffering from osteoarthritis. The trial concluded a one-hour Swedish massage session for eight weeks safely provided relief that lasted beyond the treatment end date.

Elderly patients

As the population ages, more elderly clients are seeking massages. Massage therapy may provide both physical and mental benefits as well as a better night’s sleep as patients age. Elderly patients need a different type of massage technique due to the aging body, which includes frailer bones, skin that bruises more easily, and a decline in mobility. Due to the patients’ differing needs, a massage therapist should use gentle stretching and joint movements, such as rocking, and avoid any extreme mobilizations.

More data needed

As massage therapy has become more mainstream, more studies are researching the effect on other diseases and special needs, including behavior of children with autism, the immune function in women with breast cancer, the quality of life and glucose levels in people with diabetes, and lung function in children with asthma. While current studies on these conditions are inconclusive, the importance of massage therapy continues to grow as the medical community acknowledges how the power of touch can heal with few risks.

If you are looking to use massage therapy to improve the quality of life for those who suffer medical conditions, you need to find a massage therapy school that can provide you safe and effective massage techniques to all patients—including those with medical conditions. At Seacoast Career Schools, our massage therapy training program will help give you the skills needed to address various clients, including a course designed to help you assess and develop a care plan for those with special needs.

This post is part of the Seacoast Career Schools weekly blog where we provide information on our programs to help support students and prospective students as they work toward a new career. For more information on our career training programs, request information, schedule a tour at one of our campuses, or call a career advisor at 800-758-7679.

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