Massage Therapy for Palliative Care

Palliative care is a multidisciplinary approach to care for people with life-threatening illnesses, no matter the prognosis, and focuses on improving the quality of life of both the patients and their families. Massage therapy for palliative care patients has been shown to decrease pain, reduce anxiety and relieve fatigue.

Oncological Palliative Care Patients

One literature review explored the effectiveness of massage therapy for reducing pain, anxiety and depression, specifically in patients receiving oncological palliative care. It showed that massage therapy has both an immediate and long-term effect in reducing pain in oncological palliative care patients. It was found that physiological relaxation was closely connected with the immediate reduction of anxiety, and that after a massage therapy intervention, patients’ perceptions of anxiety decreased significantly. Physical contact in general plays an important role in reducing anxiety, and massage therapy allows for this close physical contact. There was also evidence that there were improvements in depressive mood through massage therapy, but the type of massage and the setting may have an effect.

No negative effects to massage therapy for oncological palliative care patients were discovered, however there are some limitations to be considered. For example, some patients are unable to find a pleasant position, causing the duration of the massage to be shortened, and others may be in a fragile state of health, making a full body massage impossible. Massage therapists should be flexible when offering massage therapy to palliative care patients to provide care that is appropriate and comfortable.

Metastatic Cancer

Metastatic cancer is a cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. A randomized controlled trial studied the effect of massage therapy on the pain, anxiety, quality of life and sleep of patients with metastatic cancer. The interventions were provided in the patients’ homes and compared both to no-touch intervention and usual care. There were significant improvements in the quality of life of the patients who received massage therapy after a one-week follow up, as compared to the no touch or usual care control groups. There were also trends towards the improvement of pain and sleep patterns after massage therapy.

Other Symptoms

Nausea is another common symptom for palliative care patients. One study shows that massage therapy can be effective for nausea and pain in bone marrow transplant patients. Another study shows that foot massage can significantly reduce nausea in hospitalized cancer patients.

Fatigue is another common symptom for individuals requiring palliative care. One study on providing massage therapy for individuals with advanced cancer found that many in this group of patients have compromised energy, drowsiness, fatigue and weakness, and for that reason it was suggested to tailor the treatment to the patient’s current level of endurance, carefully assess the patient’s willingness to undergo treatment, and shorten sessions if needed. Another study suggests that massage therapy is beneficial to improve sleep quality and reduce fatigue in post-surgical patients.

Massage Therapy Can Help

Palliative Care is not designed to cure, but to ensure comfort and support to someone who is terminally ill. It is intended to provide pain and other symptom relief, and to improve quality of life, from the patient’s diagnosis and throughout the course of the patient’s illness. Massage therapy is just one of the options that can improve quality of life for those requiring palliative care.

Find a Therapist


MTAS gratefully acknowledges the Registered Massage Therapists' Association of Ontario (RMTAO) for their generous permission to use the material in this section.


Falkensteiner M, Mantovan F, Müller I, Them C. The use of massage therapy for reducing pain, anxiety, and depression on oncological palliative care patients: A narrative review of literature. ISRN Nurs. 2011: 929686. [link]

Mazlum S, Chaharsoughi NT, Banihashem A, Vashani HB. The effect of massage therapy on chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting in pediatric cancer. Iran J Nurs Midwifery Res. 2013 Jul-Aug; 18(4):280–284. [link]

Nerbass FB, Feltrim MI, Souza SA, Ykeda DS, Lorenzi-Filho G. Effects of massage therapy on sleep quality after coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2010; 65(11):1105-1110. [link]

Smith MC. Yamashita TE. Bryant LL, Hemphill L, Kutner JS. Providing massage therapy for people with advanced cancer: What to expect. J Altern Complement Med. 2009 Apr; 15(4):367–371. [link]

Toth M, Marcantonio ER, Davis RB, Walton T, Kahn JR, Phillips RS. Massage therapy for patients with metastatic cancer: A pilot randomized controlled trial. J Altern Complement Med. 2013 Jul; 19(7):650–656. [link]