“Soft tissue massage is gentle but firm, and activates touch receptors in the skin which then release oxytocin, a hormone known for its positive effects on well-being and relaxation”, says Berit Seiger Cronfalk, who led the study at the department of oncology-pathology, Karolinska Institutet. “For example oxytocin is released when a mother breast feeds her child.”
Eighteen people who had lost a relative to cancer and had been in contact with a palliative care team at Stockholms Sjukhem took part in the study. Participants ranged from 34 to 78 years of age and included widows, widowers, daughters and sisters. Nine chose foot massage, eight chose hand massage and one asked for both. Relatives were offered a 25-minute hand or foot massage once a week for eight weeks, and could choose whether the sessions took place at home, work or at the hospital.
In the study the massage was carried out with slow strokes, light pressure and circling movements using oil lightly scented with citrus or hawthorn. The relatives were then encouraged to relax for a further 30 minutes. Baseline data was collected on the participants during a 60-minute interview before the programme started and a further 60-minute interview was conducted a week after the massage programme finished. A follow-up was made six to eight months after ending of the program.
“The follow-up showed, that 17 of the relatives had moved forward with their lives, but one had suffered further emotional problems after the death of another close family member”, says Dr Seiger Cronfalk. “However all the people we spoke to, used the word consolation when describing the treatment.”
The relatives’ comments could be divided into four key themes:
• A helping hand at the right time.
• Something to rely on.
• Moments of rest.
• Moments of retaining energy.
“According to the study participants, the massages provide physical touch and closeness that helped to diminish the feelings of empty space and loneliness”, says Dr Seiger Cronfalk. “They also told us that the massages helped them to balance the need to grieve and the need to adapt to life after the loss of their relative.”
Publication: ‘Soft tissue massage: early intervention for relatives whose family members died in palliative care’, Berit S Cronfalk, Britt-Marie Ternestedt, Peter Strang, Journal of Clinical Nursing, 24 March 2010, vol. 19, p.1040-1048.