Massage benefits children with atopic dermatitis

June 1, 2005

National report — The benefits of topical therapy for atopic dermatitis can be boosted with massage, according to a study in children. Massage not only improved patients' symptoms and quality of life but also helped to relieve their parents' anxiety.

Tiffany M. Field, Ph.D., and her colleagues conducted a trial of massage therapy for atopic dermatitis in 20 children ages 2 to 8. For the study, children with atopic dermatitis were randomized into a massage group or a control group. All patients received standard topical care for the atopic dermatitis in the form of an emollient applied once daily at bedtime. Parents of the children in the massage group, however, massaged the medication into their children's skin for 20 minutes every night. The patients in the control group administered the medication as usual.

"We figured it was such an easy thing to do since the parents were applying the medication anyway, (so we thought) we would just have them fit this into their bedtime routine and massage the child," Dr. Field says. She is director of the Touch Research Institutes at the University of Miami School of Medicine in Florida. She conducted the study in collaboration with Lawrence A. Schachner, M.D., from the University of Miami Department of Pediatric Dermatology, now a member of the Dermatology Times advisory board. The study was published in the September-October 1998 issue of Pediatric Dermatology.

Massage also impacted quality of life, as massaged children improved with respect to mood and activity levels, and their parents reported that their children seemed less anxious.

Importantly, massage also helped the parents, who reported lower anxiety levels for themselves.

"Parents are frustrated because they can't do anything with regard to their child's treatment, and something positive to do like this is often very helpful (for them)," Dr. Field says.

Relieves stress These findings are probably a result of the stress-relieving properties of massage, she says.

"I don't think these effects are a result of rubbing the medication in the area where the dermatitis problem is, but rather of altering the biochemistry and the physiology of the system so that the immune system is more in balance. ... Massage involves stimulation of pressure receptors, and what the stimulation does is stimulate the vagal nerve, which slows down the whole system," she says. "It slows down heart rate, it slows down blood pressure, it really puts the person in a relaxed state, and with that you get a reduction in stress hormones (such as) cortisol. And stress hormones are a real culprit to the immune system, so if you lower the stress hormones, you're going to have an improvement, whether you've got an autoimmune condition or an immune condition."

Another possible mechanism of action, she says, is increased blood flow through the skin.