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New Study Links Massage Therapy With the Immune System

PHILADELPHIA (November 9, 1998) -- A new study released this month adds to the body of evidence that massage therapy bolsters immune function in people who are healthy as well as those who are fighting disease. The finding was announced November 1, 1998 at the annual meeting of the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) in Washington, D.C. Massage therapy is already offered at Fox Chase Cancer Center's Complementary Medicine Program as supplemental care for people with cancer.

"This is yet another study supporting already existing evidence that massage therapy has a positive effect on the immune system," said Pamela Kinker, R.N., B.S.N., massage therapist at Fox Chase Cancer Center's Complementary Medicine Program (CMP).

The CMP at Fox Chase opened in September. It offers massage therapy as one of many options for patients seeking more than just traditional treatment for cancer.

"We knew our patients were going elsewhere for what is commonly called alternative care," says Cynthia Bergman, M.D., medical director of the CMP. "This way, we can offer the care patients demand. At the same time, we can assure the care-givers are specially trained in helping clients with cancer."

The latest findings were from a study was done at Kessler Medical Rehabilitation and Education Corporation, West Orange, N.J. It involved nine healthy female medical students who reported being under considerable acute stress related to an academic examination the following day. After one full-body massage therapy session, all participants experienced reduced levels of anxiety and five of the nine (56 percent) experienced a substantial increase in white-cell count and natural killer-cell cytotoxicity (ability to kill cells).

"An increase in white blood cells and natural killer-cell activity better prepares the body to fight off possible invading cells," said Diane Zeitlin, a research associate in the study. "These cellular changes suggest the immune system benefited from the massages, and these findings fall in line with previous research." Zeitlin's research was funded by the AMTA Foundation.

In an earlier study at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, massage appeared to help women diagnosed with breast cancer. Ironson and Maria Hernandez-Reif, Ph.D., director of research at the Touch Research Institute, studied 20 women diagnosed with breast cancer in the previous five years. The women were randomly selected for either a non-treatment control group or a treatment group. Those in the treatment group received massage therapy three times a week for five weeks, with 80 percent showing improved immune function. Those in the non-treatment group did not receive massage and only 30 percent showed improved immune function. This study is an ongoing pilot study.

"These studies, while not large, are very important," said Dr. Janet Kahn, president of the AMTA Foundation. "Collectively, they suggest that massage therapy has positive effects on the immune function of both healthy and immunologically challenged populations. They further suggest that this enhancement of immune function is a result of a reduction in stress and anxiety. When we consider the range of illnesses that are now considered to be stress-induced or stress-related, we begin to see how important massage could be in reducing illness."

Bergman is pleased to see the government keeping up with research findings in this area. "The creation of the Office of Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health gives significant credibility to the work researchers have done to this point. Next, we look for significant funding to move ahead with larger trials to discover more benefits offered by non-traditional care."

Fox Chase Cancer Center is one of 34 National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the nation. The Center's activities include basic and clinical research including prevention, detection and treatment of cancer, and community outreach programs.

Fox Chase Cancer Center, part of the Temple University Health System, is one of the leading cancer research and treatment centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence four consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach.  For more information, call 1-888-FOX CHASE or (1-888-369-2427).

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