Background: Infection with human immunodeficency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficency syndrome (AIDS) is a pandemic that has affected millions of people globally. Although major research and clinical initiatives are addressing prevention and cure strategies, issues of quality of life for survivors have received less attention. Massage therapy is proposed to have a positive effect on quality of life and may also have a positive effect on immune function through stress mediation.
Objectives: The objective of this systematic review was to examine the safety and effectiveness of massage therapy on quality of life, pain and immune system parameters in people living with HIV/AIDS.
Search strategy: A comprehensive search strategy was devised incorporating appropriate terms for HIV/AIDS, randomised controlled trials (RCTs), massage therapy and the pertinent measures of benefit. All electronic databases identified were searched in November 2008, including Cochrane Group Trials Register, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, EMBASE, SCIENCE CITATION INDEX, AIDSLINE, AIDSearch, CINAHL, HEALTHSTAR, PsycLIT, AMED, Current Contents, AMI, NLM GATEWAY, LILACS, IndMed, SOCIOFILE, SCI, SSCI, ERIC and DAI. We also reviewed relevant published and unpublished conference abstracts and proceedings and scrutinised reference lists from pertinent journals. There were no language or date restrictions.
Selection criteria: Studies were identified by two reviewers based on trial design (RCTs) and participants (ie, people of any age with HIV/AIDS, at any stage of the disease) who had undergone an intervention that included massage therapy for the identified aims of improving quality of life and activity and participation levels, improving immune function, reducing pain and improving other physiological or psychological impairments.
Data collection and analysis: Two reviewers independently identified included studies and extracted relevant data. Two other reviewers independently reviewed the included studies for risk of bias. All data and risk of bias judgements were entered into Revman (v5) and meta-analyses were conducted where appropriate.
Main results: Twelve papers were identified, from which four were included. The remaining eight papers were excluded predominantly due to inappropriate methodology. The four included studies were highly clinically heterogenous, investigating a range of age groups (ie, children, adolescents and adults) across the disease spectrum from early HIV through late-stage AIDS. The settings were either community or palliative care, and the outcome measures were a combination of quality of life and immunological function. The trials were judged to be at moderate risk of bias mostly because of incomplete reporting. For quality of life measures, the studies reported that massage therapy in combination with other modalities, such as meditation and stress reduction, are superior to massage therapy alone or to the other modalities alone. The quality of life domains with significant effect sizes included self-reported reduced use of health care resources, improvement in self-perceived spiritual quality of life and improvement in total quality of life scores. One study also reported positive changes in immune function, in particular CD4+ cell count and natural killer cell counts, due to massage therapy, and one study reported no difference between people given massage therapy and controls in immune parameters. Adverse or harmful effects were not well reported.
Authors' conclusions: There is some evidence to support the use of massage therapy to improve quality of life for people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), particularly in combination with other stress-management modalities, and that massage therapy may have a positive effect on immunological function. The trials are small, however, and at moderate risk of bias. Further studies are needed using larger sample sizes and rigorous design/reporting before massage therapy can be strongly recommended for PLWHA.