Effectively Addressing Eating Disorders: The Potential Benefits of Massage Therapy

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In the United States today, an estimated 30 million people suffer from an eating disorder, including children, adolescents, adults, and seniors of all genders. Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder can have a wide range of negative effects on physical and mental health, and they can even be life-threatening: According to a 2012 study published in the journal Current Psychiatry Reports, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate among all mental illnesses. On average, eating disorders in the United States cause one death every 62 minutes.

Clearly, finding effective strategies to address and manage an eating disorder is essential, but the long-term effectiveness of pharmacological and/or psychosocial interventions can vary significantly depending on the type of eating disorder and the individual patient’s condition. One adjunctive therapy that may help patients who are struggling with eating disorders is massage. Read on to learn more about the research suggesting that different massage modalities can help patients with eating disorders.

Clinical Studies on the Benefits of Massage Therapy for Patients with Eating Disorders

Several small-scale clinical studies provide preliminary evidence of the possible effectiveness of massage therapy for patients with eating disorders. In 2001, a group of scientists from Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine in Miami, Florida, published a study in the scholarly journal Eating Disorders, which indicated that massage therapy may reduce symptoms in patients with anorexia nervosa. The sample population included 19 females, with a median age of 26, who were randomly divided into a treatment group and a control group. The control group received standard therapy, while the treatment group received massage therapy in addition to standard therapy, with sessions provided twice a week for five weeks. The researchers noted the following results:

  • The patients in the treatment group reported lower stress and anxiety levels after each massage.
  • The measured levels of cortisol (stress hormones) were lower in patients after each massage.
  • After the five-week treatment period, the subjects in the treatment group reported significant decreases in body dissatisfaction levels, as compared to those in the control group.
  • The researchers measured higher levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that are involved in brain chemical signaling pathways related to stress, pleasure, and reward.

Based on these findings, the researchers concluded that massage therapy could potentially support symptom reduction and help promote long-term recovery in patients with anorexia nervosa.

Some of the same researchers at the University of Miami had collaborated on a similar study in 1998, which was published in the journal Adolescence. However, this study focused on the potential benefits of massage therapy for adolescent patients with bulimia nervosa. In a similar experimental setup, 24 adolescent patients with bulimia were divided into a control group that received standard therapy and a treatment group that received massage therapy alongside standard therapy. After each massage therapy sessions, self-reports from patients and behavioral observations by research staff indicated that patients experienced lower levels of both anxiety and depression in the immediate aftermath of each massage. After the trial was complete, the researchers reported that the patients in the massage therapy treatment group had:

  • Lower levels of cortisol
  • Higher levels of dopamine
  • Lower scores an index for depression
  • Higher scores on an index measuring bulimia-related behaviors

Together, the researchers concluded that the evidence supported massage as a potentially effective adjunct treatment for patients with bulimia nervosa.

It is important to note that both of the above-described studies were small-scale studies, but a more recent pilot randomized control trial conducted by researchers at the University of Western Sydney in new South Wales, Australia, suggests that a larger trial may be feasible in the future. In the 2014 pilot study, the researchers divided 26 patients with anorexia nervosa into two groups: one group where the patients received acupuncture, twice a week for three weeks, and one group where the patients received a combination of acupressure and massage therapy, twice a week for three weeks. Based on several key outcome measures — body-mass index, eating disorder psychopathology, anxiety, and depression — the researchers concluded that the patients had responded positively to both treatments, so large-scale studies are warranted in the near future.

Choosing a Massage Modality to Support Eating Disorder Treatment

Given that relaxation is one of the primary benefits of massage therapy for patients with eating disorders, deep tissue massage is the natural go-to for patients who are seeking massage therapy as an adjunctive treatment for an eating disorder. At the same time, you may also want to consider Thai massage, which is essentially an assisted yoga session, since several studies have shown that yoga and other movement-related activities that promote body awareness can help support the recovery of patients with eating disorders. Finally, for patients with eating disorders that have contributed to an injury (such as a muscle strain while playing sports), neuromuscular therapy (NMT) can aid in healing during the recovery period from both the injury and the eating disorder.

 

Atlanta Chiropractic and Wellness offers a variety of massage modalities that can help support your physical and mental health, starting wherever you are. Contact us today to schedule an appointment!

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