Written by Helen Cooke and the CAM-Cancer Consortium.
Updated July 7, 2015

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Does it work?

One meta-analysis and fifteen subsequently published controlled clinical trials were reviewed for this summary. The trials are described in table 1. There is, due to the low number (per outcome) of published studies and methodological weaknesses, insufficient evidence for the effectiveness of PMR for cancer patients suffering from pain, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and chemotherapy-induced nausea. It is, due to the challenges of applying blinding, difficult to test the efficacy of PMR.


A meta-analysis examined the effectiveness of relaxation training among patients undergoing acute non-surgical cancer treatment including chemotherapy, radiotherapy, bone marrow transplant and hyperthermia6. In 14 of 15 studies reviewed, PMR, guided imagery and other modalities were lumped together and evaluated for their effects on symptom control. The review concluded that clinically significant reductions in nausea, pain, anxiety, depression, hostility and physical arousal (blood pressure and pulse) were achieved following relaxation training. However, because PMR was not analyzed separately, its effects on those outcomes were impossible to determine.

Controlled clinical trials (see also table 1)

Three controlled clinical trials assessing the effects on sleep reported an improvement in sleep quality and insomnia but these trials have methodological limitations including small sample sizes, lack of non-treatment control group, lack of information on randomization procedure7-9. It is not possible to draw clear conclusions about the benefits of PMR for these symptoms.

Two randomized clinical trials investigating the effects on anxiety and depression reported improvements in both, anxiety and depression10-11. Two further non-randomized trials with matched pair comparisons reported improvements in mental wellbeing (but not physical wellbeing) and health-related quality of life14 and anxiety and stress (no reported improvement in depressions scores)15. A randomised clinical trial suggested a single session of PMR reduced physiological stress parameters18. A further randomised trial reported  significantly lower anxiety levels and cancer-related symptoms19 and a non-randomised trial indicated an improvement in anxiety and general comfort20. All trials have, however, methodological limitations.

Although patients who participated in the two controlled3,12 and one uncontrolled13 trial reported an improvement in nausea and vomiting, all trials were small in numbers and have methodological limitations.

One randomised controlled trial investigating the benefits for cancer pain and fatigue showed improvements in both cancer pain and fatigue. The lack of report of a randomisation process and the quality (validity) of the outcome measures used limit the overall conclusion of this trial16. There is insufficient evidence from one pilot study with regards to the efficacy of PMR for cancer pain4.

One pilot study comparing a type of music therapy with PMR showed significant improvements in physical and psychological wellbeing in both interventions17.

Citation Helen Cooke, CAM-Cancer Consortium. Progressive Muscle Relaxation [online document]. http://ws.cam-cancer.org/The-Summaries/Mind-body-interventions/Progressive-Muscle-Relaxation. July 7, 2015.


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