Massage Therapy May Improve Symptom Burden for Pediatric Patients With Hematologic and/or Oncologic Conditions

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A new study from University Hospitals (UH) Connor Whole Health found children, adolescents, and young adults with cancer or sickle cell disease treated at a pediatric academic medical center reported clinically significant reductions in pain, stress, and anxiety in response to massage therapy. Furthermore, patients with sickle cell disease who received massage therapy reported significantly higher symptoms at baseline than patients with hematologic and/or oncologic conditions excluding sickle cell disease. The findings from this study were recently published by Rodgers-Melnick in Pediatric Blood & Cancer.

Study Details

Researchers examined the clinical delivery and effectiveness of massage therapy at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital and compared the effectiveness of massage therapy on pain, stress, and anxiety between children, adolescents, and young adults with sickle cell disease as compared to those with hematologic and/or oncologic conditions excluding sickle cell disease (the HemOnc group).

In the retrospective study conducted between October 2019 and December 2021, a certified pediatric massage therapist provided 3,015 massage therapy sessions to 243 patients across 1,494 encounters, making this one of the largest investigations of the real-world effectiveness of massage therapy within pediatric hematology and oncology to date.

“This manuscript shows the power of touch. This can include holding a hand, hugging a parent or child, or a full massage therapy treatment. My role is not only to provide massage but also to provide support through patients’ treatment journeys. I am there from diagnosis to remission or to end of life,” said Mandy Bartolovich, LMT, CPMT, the massage therapist who provided the services described in the study.

As part of clinical care, Ms. Bartolovich assessed patients’ self-reported pain, stress, and anxiety on a 0 to 10 scale at the beginning and end of each session and documented these sessions in the electronic health record. Beyond providing massage therapy treatments, she also provided important psychosocial support, including conducting assessments of patients and family members’ needs; providing supportive interventions during painful procedures; providing education on stress management techniques; and facilitating communication and collaboration between patients, their families, and the medical team.

Study Findings

Results of the recent study showed that in the combined sample of patients in the sickle cell disease and HemOnc groups, clinically significant reductions in pain (2.25 units), stress (2.50 units), and anxiety (2.52 units) were observed. Patients in the sickle cell disease group (as compared to patients in the HemOnc group) reported significantly higher pretreatment pain (6.95 vs 4.46), stress (6.47 vs 4.58), and anxiety (6.67 vs 4.59). Additionally, patients in the HemOnc group reported greater mean pain reduction (2.54 vs 1.87 units) than patients in the sickle cell disease group.

“We have shown that massage therapy is a convenient, nontoxic, and useful adjunct to therapies administered in pediatric hematology/oncology, a population that has to endure a number of complex and sometimes toxic therapies,” explained Sanjay P. Ahuja, MD, Clinical Director of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and a coauthor on the study. Importantly, massage therapy was both safe and effective for this population that had a high prevalence of conditions including coagulation defects, neutropenia, immune system disorders, and treatment-related pain from intravenous lines and radiation. When conditions such as these are present, certified pediatric massage therapists are specially trained to take appropriate precautions to provide massage therapy services to address patients’ needs.

Commentary and Related Research

“What makes this research unique is the meaningful integration of massage therapy within clinical hematology/oncology care and our ability to collect all our data within the electronic health record, extract it, and analyze it to understand the real-world impact of massage therapy,” said Sam Rodgers-Melnick, MPH, MT-BC, first author of the study. “This research highlights the increased symptom burden that youth with sickle cell disease face in the hospital and the significant impact that a single session of massage therapy can have on their symptoms.”

This study builds upon a recently published study in Integrative Cancer Therapies from UH Connor Whole Health demonstrating the effectiveness of music therapy for adults with hematologic and oncologic conditions, as well as the increased symptom burden faced by adults with sickle cell disease.

Disclosure: This study was funded by the Elisabeth Severance Prentiss Foundation, a charitable trust dedicated to supporting and advancing health care in Cleveland, Ohio. For full disclosures of the study authors, visit

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.