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Research Summary

Massage Therapy as an Adjunct to Alcohol Detoxification?

Massage therapy can lower anxiety, blood pressure, and heart rate. It has also been used as an adjunct to smoking cessation therapies to reduce nicotine withdrawal symptoms. To examine whether massage therapy may reduce symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial of 50 patients with alcohol dependence who were undergoing detoxification with diazepam.

They compared patients who, for 15 minutes on 4 consecutive days, either received a seated massage (back, shoulder, neck, and head) or rested on their beds. At the beginning and end of each massage/rest session, researchers measured subjects' withdrawal symptoms (with the Alcohol Withdrawal Scale [AWS]), pulse rates, and respirations.

  • The massage group had reduced AWS scores after each of the 4 daily sessions; the control group had reduced scores only on 2 days (and increased scores on the other days). Reductions were significantly greater in the massage group on day 1 only.
  • The massage group also had significantly greater reductions in pulse rate (on 3 of 4 days) and in respiration (day 4 only).
  • The dose of diazepam used during detoxification did not differ between the groups.

Comments:

One limitation in the article reporting these findings is the lack of specificity about the medication regimen during detoxification. Nonetheless, this study illustrates the potential benefit of a nonpharmacologic adjunct to treatment for alcohol withdrawal. Larger studies should examine whether massage and other alternative therapies can decrease medication requirements without increasing complications (e.g., seizures, delirium) and help increase referrals to alcoholism treatment.

Joseph Conigliaro, MD, MPH

Reference:

Reader M, Young R, Connor JP. Massage therapy improves the management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. J Altern Compliment Medicine. 2005;11(2):311-313.

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