Many of Mary Cheers’ patients can’t thank her for their massage treatment, but as a volunteer hospice massage therapist, she knows when her work has been effective.
Hospice patients may be unable to verbalize their discomfort or anxiety because of their illness, but it presents itself in restlessness, moaning, frowning and grimacing, she says.
By the end of a massage, however, those signs of distress are gone, and they’re calm, Cheers says. Their breathing has slowed and becomes more consistent and their face is visibly relaxed.
“The idea of massage as being therapeutic took time to accept because it was viewed as a luxury — a spa indulgence,” Cheers says. “I’ve been in business for 30 years and we’re finally just starting to educate people enough to realize massage can help keep you healthy and reduce pain.”
Other medical professionals also express belief in the healing power of massage.
“Massage therapy has been noted to relax the nervous system by slowing heart rate and blood pressure. Stress and pain hormones are also decreased by massage, reducing pain and enhancing immune function,” says Dr. Tiffany Field, who heads the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School.
Although massage and other complementary therapies are not standard in Veterans Administration medical centers, many VA health care facilities are incorporating them into conventional medicine.
That’s not surprising to Cheers, who has spent decades seeing firsthand the therapeutic value of massage and how it offers symptom management and improves quality of life.
“The way I think of it is that anything we are going through, if we’re calm and relaxed, it’s easier,” she says.
Indeed, it’s not uncommon for patients who are finally able to relax to die shortly thereafter. “More than once it’s happened that another therapist or I have seen someone die within 24 hours or less after a relaxing massage,” she says.
“With one patient in particular, who died while I was giving her a treatment, her family was thrilled because she had been struggling and nothing they had been doing was making her truly comfortable,” Cheers says. “When she passed while I was doing massage, they were beyond happy. They never thought they would see her pass that peacefully.”