Injury type: Acute

Category: Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Rating: Not effective

What is it?

Therapeutic massage is the manipulation of the soft tissue of whole body areas to bring about generalised improvements in health. These include relaxation or improved sleep, or specific physical benefits, such as relief of muscular aches and pains. There are many different types of massage such as relaxation, therapeutic, remedial, soft tissue, deep connective tissue, effleurage, petrissage, kneading, myofascial to name a few.

How does it work?

Massage is thought to work through a mechanical action and a reflex action. A mechanical action is created by moving the muscles and soft tissues of the body using pressure and stretching movement. This mechanical action is purported to break up fibrous tissue and loosen stiff joints.

A reflex is created when treatment of one part of the body affects another part of the body, via the nervous system. It may help heal damaged muscle, stimulate circulation, clear waste products via the lymphatic system, boost the activity of the immune system, reduce pain and tension and induce a calming effect. Massage may also enhance a general sense of well-being by stimulating the release of endorphins (natural pain-killers and mood elevators) and reducing levels of certain stress hormones.

Is it effective?

Data from six trials of massage as a stand alone treatment have been summarised in a high quality review. Some of these studies refer to whiplash and others to neck pain in general. The studies all compared massage to a control treatment, however, the results are inconclusive at present as to whether massage reduces pain, improves function and improves patient satisfaction. It is also unclear as to how many sessions are required, how long each session should be and the most effective style of massage. A recent systematic review found there was insufficient evidence to support the use of massage following whiplash injury.

Given the lack of consistent research, two recent guidelines offer slightly different advice regarding massage. One suggests that passive treatments such as massage could be used as a treatment option alongside other manual and physical therapies and exercise in the first three weeks following injury. The other states there is insufficient evidence to support or refute the use of massage in the first two weeks and more than 12 weeks after injury. However, massage may be considered for the reduction of pain between two and twelve weeks after injury.

Are there any disadvantages?

Most massage techniques have a low risk of adverse effects. Cases reported in the literature are extremely rare and regularly involve techniques that are unusual, such as extremely vigorous massage. If you have other underlying health issues massage may not be suitable. Generally, massage should be avoided if you suffer from congestive heart failure, kidney failure, infection of the superficial veins (called phlebitis) or soft tissue (called cellulitis) in the legs or elsewhere, blood clots in the legs, bleeding disorders, or contagious skin conditions. If you have cancer, you must check with your doctor before considering massage because you should not receive such treatments under certain circumstances.

People with rheumatoid arthritis, a goiter (a thyroid disorder characterized by an enlarged thyroid), eczema and other skin lesions should not receive massage therapy during flare-ups. Experts also advise that people with osteoporosis, high fever, few platelets or white blood cells, and mental impairment, as well as those recovering from surgery may be better off avoiding massage. Massage obviously involves close physical contact. To minimise the risks of unprofessional behaviour in this situation, patients should ensure that practitioners are registered with an appropriate regulatory body.

Where do you get it?

Massage Therapists are listed in the Yellow Pages. Other professionals such as Physiotherapists and Chiropractors may use massage as a component of their treatment. Qualified Massage Therapists should belong to a relevant professional association.


The current research evidence does not support the use of massage on its own for the management of whiplash. It may be used as an adjunct to other therapies (i.e. multimodal care) in the short term for pain relief.