People with cancer may experience symptoms such as pain, anxiety, or distress. Massage with or without aromatherapy (using essential oils, which are natural oils that may have the odour of the plant from which it was extracted) may help relieve these symptoms. Massage involves working and acting on the body with pressure. Massage is given using a carrier oil (base oil or vegetable oil) with or without essential oils. Massage with essential oils such as rose or lavender oil is known as aromatherapy massage.
Key results and quality of evidence
In August 2015, we searched for clinical trials looking at massage with or without aromatherapy for symptom relief in people with cancer. We found 19 small studies (1274 participants) of very low quality. Some small studies suggested that massage without aromatherapy may help relieve short-term pain and anxiety in people with cancer. Other small studies suggested that aromatherapy massage may provide medium- or long-term relief for these symptoms. However, the quality of evidence was very low and the results were not consistent. We cannot be sure that these treatments will bring any benefit.
There was a lack of evidence on the clinical effectiveness of massage for symptom relief in people with cancer. Most studies were too small to be reliable and key outcomes were not reported. Any further studies of aromatherapy and massage will need to address these concerns.
Massage and aromatherapy massage are used to relieve cancer-related symptoms. A number of claims have been made for these treatments including reduction of pain, anxiety, depression, and stress. Other studies have not shown these benefits.
To evaluate the effects of massage with or without aromatherapy on pain and other symptoms associated with cancer.
We searched the following databases and trials registries up to August 2015: the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL, 2015, Issue 7), MEDLINE (Ovid), EMBASE (Ovid), PsycINFO (Ovid), CINAHL (EBSCO), PubMed Cancer Subset, SADCCT, and the World Health Organization (WHO) ICTRP. We also searched clinical trial registries for ongoing studies.
Randomised controlled studies (RCTs) reporting the effects of aromatherapy or massage therapy, or both, in people with cancer of any age. We applied no language restrictions. Comparators were massage (using carrier oil only) versus no massage, massage with aromatherapy (using carrier oil plus essential oils) versus no massage, and massage with aromatherapy (using carrier oil plus essential oils) versus massage without aromatherapy (using carrier oil only).
At least two review authors selected studies, assessed the risk of bias, and extracted data relating to pain and other symptoms associated with cancer, using standardised forms. We assessed the evidence using GRADE (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation) and created two 'Summary of findings' tables.
We included 19 studies (21 reports) of very low quality evidence with a total of 1274 participants. We included 14 studies (16 reports) in a qualitative synthesis and five studies in a quantitative synthesis (meta-analysis). Thirteen studies (14 reports, 596 participants) compared massage with no massage. Six studies (seven reports, 561 participants) compared aromatherapy massage with no massage. Two studies (117 participants) compared massage with aromatherapy and massage without aromatherapy. Fourteen studies had a high risk of bias related to sample size and 15 studies had a low risk of bias for blinding the outcome assessment. We judged the studies to be at unclear risk of bias overall. Our primary outcomes were pain and psychological symptoms. Two studies reported physical distress, rash, and general malaise as adverse events. The remaining 17 studies did not report adverse events. We downgraded the GRADE quality of evidence for all outcomes to very low because of observed imprecision, indirectness, imbalance between groups in many studies, and limitations of study design.
Massage versus no-massage groups
We analysed results for pain and anxiety but the quality of evidence was very low as most studies were small and considered at an unclear or high risk of bias due to poor reporting. Short-term pain (Present Pain Intensity-Visual Analogue Scale) was greater for the massage group compared with the no-massage group (one RCT, n = 72, mean difference (MD) -1.60, 95% confidence interval (CI) -2.67 to -0.53). Data for anxiety (State-Trait Anxiety Inventory-state) relief showed no significant difference in anxiety between the groups (three RCTs, n = 98, combined MD -5.36, 95% CI -16.06 to 5.34). The subgroup analysis for anxiety revealed that the anxiety relief for children was greater for the massage group compared with the no-massage group (one RCT, n = 30, MD -14.70, 95% CI -19.33 to -10.07), but the size of this effect was considered not clinically significant. Furthermore, this review demonstrated no differences in effects of massage on depression, mood disturbance, psychological distress, nausea, fatigue, physical symptom distress, or quality of life when compared with no massage.
Massage with aromatherapy versus no-massage groups
We analysed results for pain, anxiety, symptoms relating to the breast, and quality of life but the quality of evidence was very low as studies were generally at a high risk of bias. There was some indication of benefit in the aromatherapy-massage group but this benefit is unlikely to translate into clinical benefit. The relief of medium- and long-term pain (medium-term: one RCT, n = 86, MD 5.30, 95% CI 1.52 to 9.08; long-term: one RCT, n = 86, MD 3.80, 95% CI 0.19 to 7.41), anxiety (two RCTs, n = 253, combined MD -4.50, 95% CI -7.70 to -1.30), and long-term symptoms relating to the breast in people with breast cancer (one RCT, n = 86, MD -9.80, 95% CI -19.13 to -0.47) was greater for the aromatherapy-massage group, but the results were considered not clinically significant. The medium-term quality of life score was lower (better) for the aromatherapy-massage group compared with the no-massage group (one RCT, n = 30, MD -2.00, 95% CI -3.46 to -0.54).
Massage with aromatherapy versus massage without aromatherapy groups
From the limited evidence available, we were unable to assess the effect of adding aromatherapy to massage on the relief of pain, psychological symptoms including anxiety and depression, physical symptom distress, or quality of life.