Sept. 18, 2000 -- There may be a reliable, natural way to calm agitated Alzheimer's patients: therapeutic massage. Although little scientific data exists to support its use, practitioners claim they've seen remarkable improvements.
Touch is "very effective for patients with dementia because it's something they remember," says Dawn Nelson, a massage therapist with Compassionate Touch in Walnut Creek, Calif. "We need touch our whole lives, not just when we we're babies."
The main thing massage does is enhance the quality of life for Alzheimer patients, helping them to relax and sleep better, Nelson says. "I think it's mostly a psychosocial benefit," she says. "But when done with lotions, it does soothe the skin, and it increases circulation."
Connie Tjaden, a licensed massage therapist in New York, takes that a step further: "You see an increase in circulation, so the memory loss is not as apparent, especially when patients get treated on a regular basis." Tjaden says that as little as 10 minutes of massage, applied to the right location three times a week, will do it.
Whether massage actually boosts memory is certainly up for question. But at least one study has shown that massage -- and even simple touching -- has a positive effect on some of the other symptoms of Alzheimer's: disruptive behavior and wandering. Researchers in Canada conducted the three-day study on 57 Alzheimer's patients at a facility in British Columbia. The patients were divided into three groups based on the amount of touching they were to get: twice-a-day massages; "non-nurturing" touch, and no touching at all. The caregiving staff, which was not told which patients were in what group, then rated the patients' behavior. Staff members found "touched" groups to be calmer.
But actual studies of the effect of massage therapy on Alzheimer's are few and far between. Research from 1997 showed a dramatic effect on agitated Alzheimer's patients' behavior when massage therapy was continued for six months. Eighty percent of those studied exhibited less abnormal behavior, and a third became relaxed enough during their massage sessions to get sleepy -- which sounds great, until you consider that only four people were tested.
Though the scientific evidence may be sparse, Nelson says massage should be considered a viable option. "Alzheimer's caregivers are so open to alternative therapies because they're so desperate," she says.
Marlene Mahn of the Alzheimer's Association says the group doesn't have an official position statement on massage, but adds: "I think it's been a really good addition to the things that professionals and family can do."
But, Mahn cautions, massage is not for everyone with Alzheimer's: "Some patients respond real well. Others don't. It has to be individualized. Some people are afraid of touch and might not respond." In the latter category, she says, might be Alzheimer's patients whose long-term memories relate touch to pain -- such as from a beating.
"Massage is a real personal thing," agrees Marlene Cohen, a nationally certified massage therapist. "If someone does not like to be touched, it won't benefit them. But 98% of Alzheimer's patients I come in contact with like it."
And they're not the only ones who may be benefiting from massage. Cohen says that having a loved one with Alzheimer's massaged gives family members a sense that they can do something good for him or her -- when often, they are able to do little else.
For more information from WebMD, see our Diseases and Conditions page on Alzheimer's.