Written by Helen Cooke, Helen Seers and the CAM-Cancer Consortium.
Updated September 28, 2016

Massage (Classical/Swedish)

What is it?


Massage involves kneading, stroking or rubbing, and sometimes vibration, of the body’s muscle and soft tissues. Massage therapists commonly use their hands, and sometimes also their forearms, feet and elbows to treat their clients. Special rollers, water pressure or vibrating tools may also be used as part of a massage session. Lubricants such as oils and diluted essential oils are sometimes used to facilitate smoother massage and in order to avoiding skin irritation. Massage may be deep or more light/shallow.

A variety of massage therapies exist. For the purposes of this CAM summary, only classical/Swedish massage will be reviewed. The majority of research has been carried out on this type of massage.


In Swedish massage soft tissues are manipulated by the use of:

  • Effleurage: light gliding strokes of the skin;
  • Petrissage: lifting, pressing and kneading skin and muscles;
  • Friction: rubbing of skin and muscles;
  • Tapotement: rapid tapping, rhythmical movements of the skin and muscles;
  • Vibration: vibration of the skin 1,2.


Massage therapy is sometimes provided by nurses or physiotherapists as an adjunct to standard medical care, but usually undertaken by licensed massage practitioners. At the first massage session, patients are often asked about their diet, medical history, lifestyle and current symptoms. Most commonly, massage is given while the patient is lying on a soft table, couch or bed, covered by a clean sheet. Patients are covered by towels or sheets to help keep warm during a treatment session. The client may lie face down for half the massage and then turn over. A typical massage lasts from 30 to 60 minutes, and the number of subsequent sessions depends on the condition.


The use of massage therapy in fever, chills and paralysis dates back to 2700 BC and also appears in early Japanese, Roman, Greek, Arabic, Egyptian and Indian history 1. Massage became popular in the renaissance and spread throughout Europe, but it was only in the 19th and 20th century that massage, and in particular Swedish massage, became familiar to the general public. Swedish massage, developed Swedish physician Per Henrik Ling in the early 1800s, is currently one of the most commonly used forms of massage.

Claims of efficacy/alleged indications

Massage practitioners claim that massage may have positive benefits for people with cancer, such as reduced anxiety, depression, stress, tension and insomnia; and improved self-image and quality of life. Practitioners also claim that massage can reduce pain, muscle tension, nausea, constipation, lymphodema and scarring. Massage practitioners claim that their intervention is safe and that it does not result in the spreading of cancer.

Mechanism of action

Massage is thought to bring about psychological and physiological changes which include: psychological relaxation, improvement in mood, reduction in blood pressure, increase in pain threshold, reduction in muscle tension, and improvement in blood and lymph circulation 2-9. Some evidence seems to indicate changes in biological markers in the blood when tested before and after massage, including an increase in natural killer cells and lymphocytes, serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine), and dopamine 10.

Prevalence of use

Massage is a popular treatment modality across the world. A European Survey of cancer patients reported that 3.9 % of respondents used massage after their cancer diagnosis 11. Use varies across the different cancers with 15-18% of breast and gynaecological cancer patients using massage after diagnosis compared with less than 10% use by people with colorectal, haematological or lung cancer 12-16.

Legal issues

Massage is used globally for people with cancer, although legislation varies from country to country. No mandatory regulation of massage therapists although massage may also be provided by registered health professionals including nurses and physiotherapists. In the UK, massage therapists may voluntarily register with the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC).


Prices often range from £20 to £60 (30 to 70 Euros) for a single massage session13. Some charities offer free treatment for people with cancer.

Citation Helen Cooke, Helen Seers, CAM-Cancer Consortium. Massage (Classical/Swedish) [online document]. http://ws.cam-cancer.org/The-Summaries/Manipulative-body-based/Massage-Classical-Swedish. September 28, 2016.


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