Purpose: Pain is multi-dimensional and may be better addressed through a holistic, biopsychosocial approach. Massage therapy is commonly practiced among patients seeking pain management; however, its efficacy is unclear. This systematic review and meta-analysis is the first to rigorously assess the quality of massage therapy research and evidence for its efficacy in treating pain, function-related and health-related quality of life outcomes across all pain populations.
Methods: Key databases were searched from inception through February 2014. Eligible randomized controlled trials were assessed for methodological quality using SIGN 50 Checklist. Meta-analysis was applied at the outcome level. A diverse steering committee interpreted the results to develop recommendations.
Results: Sixty high quality and seven low quality studies were included in the review. Results demonstrate massage therapy effectively treats pain compared to sham [standardized mean difference (SMD) = -.44], no treatment (SMD = -1.14), and active (SMD = -0.26) comparators. Compared to active comparators, massage therapy was also beneficial for treating anxiety (SMD = -0.57) and health-related quality of life (SMD = 0.14).
Conclusion: Based on the evidence, massage therapy, compared to no treatment, should be strongly recommended as a pain management option. Massage therapy is weakly recommended for reducing pain, compared to other sham or active comparators, and improving mood and health-related quality of life, compared to other active comparators. Massage therapy safety, research challenges, how to address identified research gaps, and necessary next steps for implementing massage therapy as a viable pain management option are discussed.