Living with a terminal illness can be extremely difficult. The physical anguish patients feel during the advanced stages of cancer, HIV/AIDs, or other diseases can be intense, while many patients experience considerable psychological issues too, feeling hopeless and alone as they live out their final weeks and months.
Palliative and hospice care facilities aim to provide as much comfort and relief as possible to patients during this difficult time, and offer a range of complementary therapies to achieve this, including counseling services, relaxation treatments, and creative therapies. One of the services offered by advanced care facilities is massage therapy, which can be beneficial in reducing both the physical and emotional pain patients suffer in the latter stages of illness.
For massage therapy students, palliative care massage is an immensely worthwhile area to work in, but one which requires special considerations and care to be taken.
Registered massage therapists (RMTs) treating patients with advanced illnesses often employ gentle Swedish massage, utilizing light effleurage strokes for short sessions. Swedish massage is ideal for terminally ill patients as it not only relieves physical pain, but also reduces nausea and helps promote better sleep. Swedish massage can lower cortisol levels, which can reduce feelings of anxiety and depression among patients.
Students pursuing a massage therapy diploma learn techniques to treat conditions associated with terminal illnesses. For instance, lymphatic drainage can help combat lymphadema, a condition common in cancer patients who have undergone radiotherapy or surgery, in which a build-up of lymph causes swelling in a patient’s limbs. Lymphatic massage also strengthens the immune system, which can be considerably weakened in terminal patients and leaves them prone to other forms of illness. Cranial-sacral therapy is also useful for this purpose.
In addition to improving a patient’s mood and helping them manage pain and other symptoms, massage therapy can also be utilized to help increase mobility and reduce joint stiffness, giving them a better quality of life for their remaining time.
Even at a very basic psychological level, many patients can be relieved simply from the gentle, comforting touch that massage therapy provides, as opposed to the cold or painful contact of some medical treatments, which may be the only human contact a patient has experienced in some time.
RMTs must assess the physical capabilities of patients with advanced illnesses even more carefully than usual, to ensure that techniques being used are appropriate and safe. For instance, trigger point therapy has proven to be beneficial when combined with Swedish massage in advanced cancer cases, but can be intolerable for patients whose muscle tissue has been considerably weakened. Patients who are actively dying, meanwhile, might only be able to tolerate the most basic contact, such as a foot massage.
Some studies have even indicated that patients with advanced illnesses have negative psychological responses to heavy touch, associating it with painful, invasive medical treatments they have suffered through. Professionals with massage therapy training know to discuss their treatments thoroughly with patients beforehand, letting them know exactly what it will entail and modifying their approach to reduce discomfort.