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Massage May Help Ease Pain and Anxiety After Surgery

Many cultures around the world employ some form of touch, or massage, as a way of helping people heal. But until now, there hasn't been a lot of research on whether — and how — massage can provide quantifiable benefits. Rose Hoban has details.

New research from the Veteran's Affairs Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan puts some numbers to those benefits. Massage therapist Allison Mitchinson worked with surgeons at this and several other VA hospitals in the United States to see how giving post-operative patients a massage helps them cope with pain. VA hospitals provide care for men and women who served in the U.S. armed forces.

Mitchinson studied 605 veterans. "They were a mean age of 64, and they were all patients that were undergoing major surgery. I would say about 80% of those were folks having coronary artery bypass surgery."

Mitchinson and her colleagues gave a group of these surgical patient a massage every evening for five days after their surgeries. They measured the patients' level of pain in two ways: the immediate response and whether patients perceived their overall pain decreasing over time. "The folks in the massage group actually had a reduced level of pain over the five days. They got to the lower pain level about a day faster than the control group," she reports. "Then in the short-term effect, we found a significant difference in not only pain but also anxiety levels in this massage group compared to the control group, and anxiety is very closely related to pain. The more anxious you are, the tenser you're going to get and the more pain you're going to be in. So I think a big component of it is the reduction of anxiety."

In addition to relieving anxiety, Mitchinson says massage may reduce pain in other ways. It could release endorphins in patients. Endorphins are chemicals produced by the brain that help people feel good. And, she says, the pleasant stimulation of massage may simply distract the brain from discomfort. "When the stimulus is going from the [painful] site up the spinal cord to the brain and back ... if you had something else that was more pleasant going on at the same time, that would moderate the effect of the pain and may make it less," she explains.

Mitchinson says the technique they used for the massage is simple enough that it could be done by anyone, from nurses and nursing aides to family members.

Her research is published in the journal Archives of Surgery.