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Revista Latino-Americana de Enfermagem

Print version ISSN 0104-1169On-line version ISSN 1518-8345

Rev. Latino-Am. Enfermagem vol.25  Ribeirão Preto  2017  Epub June 08, 2017 

Review Article

Effects of the application of therapeutic massage in children with cancer: a systematic review

Juan Rodríguez-Mansilla1 

Blanca González-Sánchez1 

Silvia Torres-Piles1 

Jorge Guerrero Martín1 

María Jiménez-Palomares2 

Macarena Núñez Bellino

1PhD, Professor, Facultad de Medicina, Universidad de Extremadura, Badajoz, Extremadura, Spain.

2PhD, Professor, Facultad de Enfermería y Terapia Ocupacional, Universidad de Extremadura, Caceres, Extremadura, Spain.



to learn about the effects of the use of therapeutic massage in children with cancer.


systematic review of controlled clinical trials The search was conducted in November 2014 in the following databases: Pubmed, CSIC, Dialnet, Scopus, Cochrane and PEDro. Inclusion criteria were: clinical trials, published in English or Spanish, analyzing the effects of massage on the different stages and types of childhood cancer (between 1 and 18 years old).


of 1007 articles found, 7 met the inclusion criteria. Their authors use different massage techniques (Swedish massage, effleurage, petrissage, frictions, pressures), obtaining benefits in the symptoms present during the illness (decrease of pain, nausea, stress, anxiety and increase of white blood cells and neutrophils).


therapeutic massage improves the symptoms of children with cancer, but there is a need for more research that may support the effects attributed to it.

Descriptors: Child; Massage; Anxiety; Neoplasia; Leukemia; Cancer


Cancer is defined as "a group of diseases in which the body produces an excess of malignant cells with typical traits of behavior and uncontrolled growth"1.

It is currently considered the second cause of death between the ages of 1 and 14, with a higher incidence in developed countries2-3, being leukemia the majority of the infantile cases. According to medical evidence, the most frequent are acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), Central Nervous System (CNS) tumors, lymphomas (Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's), Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and bone tumors1.

The treatment of this pathology in conventional protocols use isolated or combined4-6. antineoplastic drugs, radiotherapy and surgery according to the type1.

The application of the massage comes from the oldest civilizations7-8. In the middle of the XIX century its effectiveness was demonstrated delimiting its therapeutic indications8. It can be defined9 as "a set of manipulations and / or maneuvers performed with the hands of the therapist and applied to the human body with preventive, hygienic, therapeutic, rehabilitating and psychological objectives in a methodical, orderly and reasoned manner". It consists of the basic maneuvers of: effleurage, petrissage, friction, pinching and vibration9.

Some authors10 show that the perception of pain by palliative care patients decreases and this effect lasts up to 18 hours after application, while others11 indicate that the intervention performed by a nurse specialized in therapeutic massage for 45 minutes in children with bone metastases reduces anxiety and pain, with lasting effects in the long term.

Would it be possible to improve the symptomatology of patients through the application of therapeutic massage? Due the above, the purpose of this review is to know the effects of the application of therapeutic massage on the oncological children population.


Systematic review of controlled clinical trials.

Inclusion criteria:

-Articles in English / Spanish.

-Published from 11/01/1994 to 11/01/2014.

-Oncological children patients aged 0.5-18 years.

-Addressing different types of childhood cancer.

-Articles who use therapeutic massage or some of their basic maneuvers as treatment.

Exclusion criteria:

-Articles that do not correspond to the type of study analyzed.

-Research that addresses types of cancer other than childhood cancer.

-Studies that do not address therapeutic massage in treatment.

Search strategy

The search was conducted in November 2014 in Pubmed, Cochrane, CSIC, Scopus, PEDro and Dialnet. The combinations of terms Mesh: "cancer AND child AND massage" were used; "Chemotherapy AND child AND massage"; "Cancer AND child AND touch"; "Cancer AND pediatric AND massage"; "Pediatric AND cancer AND touch"; "Cancer AND anxiety AND massage AND children"; "Leukemia AND child AND massage"; "Neoplasm AND pediatric AND massage".

Selection of studies

A selection of complete articles was established by reading the title and abstract. Those articles meeting the inclusion criteria were subjected to a complete reading for analysis and inclusion. The methodological quality was analyzed using the Physiotherapy Evidence Database scale12.

Methodological quality

See Figure 1.

Figure 1 Methodological quality of included studies. Badajoz, EX, Spain, 2016 


See Figure 2.

Figure 2 Figure Prism. Procedure for selection of articles in bibliographic searches 

Description of studies

See Figure 3.

Figure 3 Characteristics of included studies. Badajoz, EX, Spain, 2016 

Sociodemographic characteristics

The size of the sample ranged from N=171, of the study13 with the larger sample to N=17 of the study14 with the smallest sample.

The youngest kids14-15 ages from 1 year and 6 months. In one of the papers(16) the average age was 6.9 years. In the remainder studies, subjects were between 4 and 18 years old13,17-19.

Intervention and treatment groups

The application of the treatment was divided in two groups, control and intervention14-19, except in one of the studies13 with a control group and two intervention groups. In one of the intervention groups massage therapy and humor is applied and in the other in addition to the above the parents were instructed in massage and relaxation. The intervention consisted of massage applied on the body13-19.


Most studies used the Swedish massage14-17,19, applying techniques of effleurage, petrissage, frictions and compressions13-15,17-19 with moderate pressure. The maneuvers were applied in combination(13-19, predominating effleurage, petrissage and digital kneading15-16,18. In only one of the studies(16) effleurage was applied on legs, ending with stretching of the Achilles tendon and circular movements with fingers centrifugally. They performed techniques with light pressure18, moderate15,17,19 and firm14.

In some studies14-15,17) they also use percussive technique14-15,17, friction17 and a thousand hands technique14.

Others13,19 added acupressure19 and interventions for health promotion13, not specifying the massage technique or place of application.

Areas of application and frequency

In one of the studies19 the center of the application was on legs, feet and arms, while others16 performed a sequence, face, neck, shoulders, back, stomach, legs, feet, arms and hands, and were the only16) that performed Swedish massage in both decubitus. In the rest it was applied on the back, hands, legs, feet18, one of them including14 face and arms. Two investigations13,17 did not specify the body part.

Interventions in all studies were fifteen16, twenty15,17,19 and thirty minutes13-14,18-19, being carried out in one of the studies16 by the parents. In the rest by a nurse18) or a masseur13-15,17,19 with experience(14-15.

The treatment protocol was: three sessions17-18, 1 session / day for one month16,3 sessions / week for 41 days19, 3 sessions / week for 4 weeks13 and 4 sessions / week14.

Type of cancer

Four studies indicate the types of cancer, being the most frequent ALL13-14,16,18) , acute myeloid leukemia (AML)13, Sarcomas and lymphomas18, Hodgkin13, brain tumors14, Wilms tumor14 and Ewing sarcoma14. The rest14,17,19 was not specified.


To measure the effects produced, they used valuation scales14-18) and questionnaires13,19. The scales used were:

-Visual Analogue Scale14,17-18

-Wong Baker FACES14-15

-Brief Pain Inventory18

-Pain Assessment Tool14

-Enumerated scale of 0-317

-Baxter Animated Rating Face17

-The State Anxiety Inventory for Children14-16

-State Trait Anxiety Inventory14-15

-Lansky`s Play Performance Scale14

-Profile of Mood States14,16)

-The Children's Depression Inventory13

-Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Reaction Index for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder13

-Children`s Health Questionnaire13,15

-Benefit Finding Scale for Children13

The Questionnaires13,19) were:

-Behavioral Affective and Somatic Scale19

-PedsQL Cancer Module.919

-The Differential Emotions Scale19

-Child Fatigue Scale13

Results obtained

Five investigations addressed pain13-15,18-19, but only three13,15,18 verified that the massage produces changes on it. One study18 shows a decrease in pain half an hour after each session. They used massage with pressure with sliding and circular movements using the fingers during 20-30 minutes18. In one of the studies18 the authors observed a significant decrease of the pain related to ambulation. Other authors15 indicate a decrease in muscle pain after Swedish massage in hospitalized and outpatient children with daily sessions on the first and weekly sessions on the second lasting 20 minutes for 4 weeks. A study13) shows the lasting decrease of the pain, and it does it combining massage and humor therapy. In two studies14,19 favorable results were not obtained: in one of them(14) children who received chemotherapy and 4 weekly sessions of massage applying effleurage, petrissage, percussive technique and a thousand hands, according to the scale VAS and in the other19, using the PedsQL Cancer Module questionnaire that obtained a non-statistically significant decrease.

Only in one of the included studies17, after applying Swedish massage for 20 minutes in three sessions before and 24 hours after chemotherapy, they succeeded in delaying the appearance of both acute nausea and nausea that usually appears after 24-72 hours. In two other investigations it has been observed that combined Swedish massage and acupressure increase the levels of nausea19 or no changes are seen with respect to their baseline assessment14.

In one of the studies13 when performing the massage, in 30-minute sessions over four weeks, it showed a decrease in post-traumatic stress syndrome in 97 of the 171 children in their study. It was maintained from the first day until the last assessment. They did not specify place of application.

Three investigations addressed depression13,16,19. All agree that the massage intervention produces a decrease, but the application varies. One of the studies19 combined Swedish massage and acupressure in sessions of 20-30 minutes for 41 days. In another16 the massage was performed by the parents before going to bed for 15 minutes, for over a month. In the third study15 it was showed a decrease of depression applying Swedish massage during 20 minutes in children between 6 months and 17 years. The frequency in hospitalized patients was daily and weekly on outpatient clinics.

In a study16 the authors get a decrease in anxiety according to the STAIC scale in children with ALL. Other authors14 achieved it by applying effleurage, petrissage and soft passes with the fingertips, during 30 minutes in four sessions they managed to decrease the anxiety in patients between 1 and 13 years in the fourth session.

One study16 addresses the effects on the immune system by applying therapeutic massage throughout the body with the techniques of effleurage, petrissage and circular movements in supine and prone position, observing from the first day an increase of white blood cells and neutrophils, lasting for 30 days.

Two investigations indicate that the respiratory rate decreases using effleurage, petrissage, compressions and frictions14-15. In one of them14) they applied massage with cream and in the other15, the massage is applied by a therapist on hands, feet, arms, shoulders and back for 20 minutes with a cream.

Only one of the studies14 showed a significant decrease in heart rate at the end of treatment after 4 sessions.


After the analysis we observed that the massage was performed in most cases by masseurs13-15,17-19 except in one of the studies in which the parents applied it16. This may suggest that if physiotherapists had performed the interventions the results would have been different.

The participants are aged between 6 months15 and 18 years old13-14,18. This age range coincides with those of other investigations20-22. Although the interpretation must be carried out prudently since in some cases14,19 the data collection has been done by the parents, and it could have biased the results.

The sample is reduced, 17-52 patients14-16,18-19, which makes difficult the extraction of significant results, except for two of the investigations13,17 with samples of 70 and 171 patients respectively.

One of the papers18 showed a decrease in pain in ambulation in children between 10 and 18 years while in other studies a decrease of muscle pain has been observed after the application of Swedish massage for 20 minutes15) or how improvement is maintained in the long term(13). Despite these 3 previous studies show an improvement in pain, it is achieved using different techniques, and different treatment regimens can be established to obtain equal benefits.

The decrease of pain in this study18 could be due to the techniques applied in the dorsum-lumbar area, legs and feet. Greater oxygenation and muscle relaxation occurs here9,23 which allows indirectly improving ambulation.

In another of the analyzed articles15) the application of the massage was performed in hospitalized and ambulatory patients. Those hospitalized patients who received daily sessions perceived a greater level of relaxation and less sensation of pain. On the other hand, the assessment through observational scales in children under two years of age was performed by the parents, which may have led to misinterpretation because they were not familiar with the evaluation instruments. These benefits can be achieved in both inpatients and outpatients and by using different techniques such as Swedish massage and the technique of circular movements with fingers. This is concurrent with other studies10-11,24) not present in this review. In that sense, they have used Swedish massage in adult patients with bone metastases11,24) or therapeutic massage in adult palliative care patients10, decreasing pain.

Taking into account what has been stated by some authors25 we thought that having performed two sessions, half an hour and 24 hours before the application, the effects of massage could have influenced acute and delayed nausea. This decrease could be due to the indirect activation of the nervous system(26) counteracting the secretion of serotonin, produced by chemotherapy25, leading to reduced nausea and vomiting. This benefit is not showed by other studies included19 in this review using Swedish massage and acupressure, although applying the same number of sessions17 failed to demonstrate a decrease in nausea and vomiting. The massage19 was performed on feet, arms legs, back and scapular waist, however, one of the works17 did not specify the areas of application so we can not consider the place of application of massage as one of the reasons why there were no benefits.

The literature 27 shows that one of the techniques used for the reduction of anxiety in children with cancer is the massage. Several investigations have demonstrated a decrease of anxiety applying Swedish massage in adult patients with AML28) or in patients with coronary interventions29.

These results coincide with some of the studies analyzed14-15. The first15 uses Swedish massage while the second14, only matches the previous research15 in two of the techniques, effleurage and petrissage. We can consider that they are the most suitable to reduce anxiety. The reduction in one of the research14 occurs in patients between 1 and 13 years, especially after the fourth session. We thought that the decrease in the fourth session could have happened because the effects of the massage were more evident than during the first sessions and the patients were more relaxed, improving their mood. With respect to the difference according to age, we consider that using different scales of evaluation can influence the obtaining and interpretation of the results.

In one of the works16) the authors show that by applying various massage techniques in children with ALL before bedtime for 30 days, neutrophils and white blood cells increase. This may be due to performing several techniques in different positions covering a larger area and therefore greater benefits. Another factor that could influence might be the form of application, according to medical evidence9 whe performing the massage centrifugally stimulation is achieved. Therefore, we could consider that the combination of these factors improves blood flow, increasing blood volume, and thus reaching the stimuli received to the marrow to improve the production of blood cells16. Massage therapy could be considered as a complementary technique to maintain the immune system under optimum conditions.

As studies30-31 conclude in the need of the oncological children patients to receive additional types of treatment devoid of side effects and with beneficial effects for their health, among them is the massage. There is a need for greater training of professionals(31) in this type of therapy as well as more studies to show the effects of it.

More recent studies32 corroborate the results of this review. There is preliminary evidence of efficacy in children's massage to reduce pain and anxiety derived from intrathecal therapy or aspiration of bone marrow. This being the only investigation found regarding the subject matter in the period between 2014 and 2107.

Thus the limitations of the study stem from the paucity of studies showing the efficacy of this therapy in patients affected by cancer as well as the scarcity of the sample in the studies analyzed with so small sample sizes results cannot be extrapolated to the total of the population of children with cancer.


Based on published studies, the effects of therapeutic massage in children with cancer receiving chemotherapy and other treatments show a decrease in pain, nausea, vomiting, posttraumatic stress, depression and anxiety and an increase in white blood cells and neutrophils.

Further research is needed to observe benefits, establish protocols and extrapolate results, to improve the quality of life of these patients.


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Received: August 19, 2016; Accepted: March 26, 2017

Corresponding Author: Blanca González-Sánchez Universidad de Extremadura. Facultad de Medicina Av. de Elvas s/n CEP: 06006, Badajoz, Extremadura, Espanha E-mail:

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