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Will Massage Therapy Fix Insomnia? Here's What the Science Says...

by Dale Cudmore | Updated: Jul 15, 2021

Most insomnia is caused by stress and anxiety.

Recently, research has started looking at whether or not relaxation therapies like massage, yoga, and acupuncture can help treat insomnia.

Unfortunately, there’s not too much high quality research on massage therapy and sleep, but I’ll walk you through what’s out there so that we can see what role massage therapy might play in an insomnia treatment plan.

The Effect of Massage Therapy on Cancer Patient Sleep Quality

One common side effect of cancer and typical cancer treatment is insomnia, particularly in certain types of cancer like breast cancer.

A research team in Iran studied the effects of massage therapy on breast cancer patients with poor sleep quality (1). Patients either received typical medication, or medication plus massage therapy.

There was a significant improvement in all aspects of sleep quality in the experimental massage therapy group.

Sleep time, latency (how long to fall asleep), and subjective quality of sleep all improved by a large amount while there was no improvement in the control group (rules out placebo effect).

The Effect of Massage on Menopausal Women With Insomnia

It turns out that low estrogen often causes insomnia. Since there’s a large overlap between women with low estrogen and menopausal women, this is a group often studied for insomnia treatment.

Low estrogen is often treated with hormone replacement therapy, but that come with significant health risks.

While it’s still early, studies suggest that massage therapy can be an effective tool to treat insomnia in menopausal women, and is much safer than hormone replacement therapy.

One review concluded (2):

These findings demonstrate the effectiveness of massage therapy for the treatment of postmenopausal symptoms, particularly insomnia, and indicate that it is a promising line of research.

Massage Therapy in Pregnant Women With Sleep Problems

Pregnancy insomnia is also quite common, and a few studies have looked at the effects of massage therapy on this vulnerable population.

One study compared massage therapy against progressive relaxation therapy (3). Each group had 20 minute sessions twice a week and experienced reductions in anxiety after the first session.

However:

Only the massage therapy group reported reduced anxiety, improved mood, better sleep and less back pain by the last day of the study.

Additionally, research shows that massage therapy is the most common non-pharmacological recommended for insomnia for pregnant women, just because it’s also more practical than yoga or other relaxation therapies (4).

Massage Therapy vs Sleep Medication

So it looks like massage therapy can have significant effects on sleep quality in those with anxiety.

But how effective is it?

One study compared the effectiveness of massage therapy to a sleep medication - Estazolam (Prosam) (5).

Not only did the massage therapy work for a larger percentage of subjects (92% vs 84%), but the effect sizes were also greater:

The scores of sleep quality, sleep efficiency, sleep disturbance and daytime dysfunction, as well as the total score were all lower than those in the medication group

While sleep medication is often prescribed, it also comes with a significant risk of side effects, so most alternatives are usually preferred over it.

Summary: How Effective is Massage Therapy for Insomnia?

There are not that many studies that look at using massage therapy for insomnia, and even the ones we looked at were in very specific populations.

However, research does suggest that massage therapy has a reliable and significant positive impact on insomnia and sleep quality for those with high stress and anxiety levels.

Considering that a large portion of insomnia is caused by stress and anxiety, it means we can realistically assume that these results apply to cases of insomnia in general.

Massage therapy likely won’t be sufficient by itself, but it’s a safe and enjoyable treatment method that can be recommended on top of more robust and proven methods of treatment like cognitive behavioral therapy.

References

  1. The effect of massage therapy on the quality of sleep in breast cancer patients
  2. The beneficial effects of massage therapy for insomnia in postmenopausal women
  3. Pregnant women benefit from massage therapy
  4. Low back pain during pregnancy: prevalence, risk factors, and outcomes
  5. Treatment of insomnia with shujing massage therapy: a randomized controlled trial

Medical Disclaimer: The information on SnoozeUniversity.com is not intended to be a substitute for physician or other qualified care. We simply aim to inform people struggling with sleep issues about the nature of their condition and/or prescribed treatment.


About the authorDale is the founder of Snooze University and a sleep researcher. I overcame my sleep issues and now I'd like to help you do the same by summarizing the latest sleep studies for you.