Massage Therapy Helps Manage Pain in Children with Sickle Cell Disease

August 12, 2009

Massage offers both physical and psychological benefits and is used at Nationwide Childrens Hospital in many areas including Rehabilitation, Physical Medicine and in patients who have received organ transplants, just to name a few. Researchers at Nationwide Childrens recently published a study in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology that revealed the benefits of massage in reducing pain, anxiety and depression in children with Sickle Cell Disease.

Sickle Cell Disease is an inherited blood disorder that affects the red blood cells, causing the cells to become hard and pointed instead of soft and round. More than 70,000 Americans suffer from this genetic disorder and it is considered an international health problem.

Kathleen Lemanek, PhD, and Mark Ranalli, MD, conducted the first study that measured the effects of massage in children with Sickle Cell Disease in a home setting. Eighteen of patients parents were trained by massage therapists, while 16 participants were used as a control group. They found children in the experimental group were significantly less depressed, less anxious and suffered from less pain after receiving massages from their parents.

Its important to note that massage may not be right for all patients with Sickle Cell Disease or even patients who may suffer from chronic pain, said Dr. Lemanek, pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Childrens Hospital. You have to consider personal characteristic and comfort levels of both the parents and child first before determining if massage is right.

Massage is an inexpensive and easy way to manage pain, which is a big part of having Sickle Cell Disease , said Dr. Ranalli, attending physician in Hematology, Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant at Nationwide Childrens and a faculty member at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. Pain management for Sickle Cell Disease typically includes hydration, nonsteriodal anti-inflammatory drugs and narcotics. Massage as a pain management technique can relax the muscles, increase circulation and help medication take a more effective route.

Researchers measured both the children and their parents anxiety levels throughout this study and were surprised to find that parents who gave massages to their children had significantly higher anxiety levels at the end of the study. The requirement to provide a nightly massage and the stress of managing symptoms at home may have temporarily increased parents anxiety. However, if benefits are experienced overtime with regular massages, caregivers may experience a sense of control in reducing pain, consequently lowering their anxiety.

Even though parents anxiety levels were increased, parents from the study said they would continue to use massage as a pain management tool, said Dr. Lemanek, who is also a faculty member at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. When your kids are in pain, despite medication, and parents feel hopeless like they have exhausted all options, massage can help them feel in control of the disease. When your child looks at you in pain, massage gives you the opportunity to do something to actively try and help.

About Nationwide Children's Hospital

Named to the Top 10 Honor Roll on U.S. News & World Report’s 2019-20 list of “Best Children’s Hospitals,” Nationwide Children’s Hospital is one of America’s largest not-for-profit freestanding pediatric health care systems providing wellness, preventive, diagnostic, treatment and rehabilitative care for infants, children and adolescents, as well as adult patients with congenital disease. Nationwide Children’s has a staff of more than 13,000 providing state-of-the-art pediatric care during more than 1.5 million patient visits annually. As home to the Department of Pediatrics of The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Nationwide Children’s physicians train the next generation of pediatricians and pediatric specialists. The Abigail Wexner Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital is one of the Top 10 National Institutes of Health-funded freestanding pediatric research facilities. More information is available at