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J Altern Complement Med. 2019 Mar 20. doi: 10.1089/acm.2018.0282. [Epub ahead of print]

Massage for Pain: An Evidence Map.

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1 West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Los Angeles, CA.
2 Fielding School of Public Health, Department of Health Policy and Management, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA.
3 UCLA Health, Los Angeles, CA.
4 Southern California Evidence-Based Practice Center, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA.



Massage therapy has been proposed for painful conditions, but it can be difficult to understand the breadth and depth of evidence, as various painful conditions may respond differently to massage. The authors conducted an evidence mapping process and generated an "evidence map" to visually depict the distribution of evidence available for massage and various pain indications to identify gaps in evidence and to inform future research priorities.


The authors searched PubMed, Embase, and Cochrane for systematic reviews reporting pain outcomes for massage therapy. The authors assessed the quality of each review using the Assessing the Methodological Quality of Systematic Reviews (AMSTAR) criteria. The authors used a bubble plot to depict the number of included articles, pain indication, effect of massage for pain, and strength of findings for each included systematic review.


The authors identified 49 systematic reviews, of which 32 were considered high quality. Types of pain frequently included in systematic reviews were cancer pain, low back pain, and neck pain. High quality reviews concluded that there was low strength of evidence of potential benefits of massage for labor, shoulder, neck, low back, cancer, arthritis, postoperative, delayed onset muscle soreness, and musculoskeletal pain. Reported attributes of massage interventions include style of massage, provider, co-interventions, duration, and comparators, with 14 high-quality reviews reporting all these attributes in their review.


Prior reviews have conclusions of low strength of evidence because few primary studies of large samples with rigorous methods had been conducted, leaving evidence gaps about specific massage type for specific pain. Primary studies often do not provide adequate details of massage therapy provided, limiting the extent to which reviews are able to draw conclusions about characteristics such as provider type.


evidence map; massage; pain


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