Terminal Illness and Palliative Massage

The World Health Organization defines palliative care as that which focuses on the comfort of terminally ill patients. Palliative massage is reflective of our culture’s growing acceptance of alternative methods to treat the body and mind, since it is focused not on a “cure” but purely on comforting and easing the whole person as they make the transition from life into death.


Palliative care attempts to minimize or eliminate emotional and physical pain or distress, emphasize the individual’s dignity and quality of life, and provide bereavement care for families. On a purely physical level, palliative massage is critical in preventing pressure sores, ulcerations that are likely to occur in people who are unable to leave their beds or wheelchairs for long periods of time. They commonly occur on bony areas like the tailbone, buttocks,ankles, heels, elbows and shoulders, areas that are in direct contact with the mattress or the wheelchair.


More than other types of massage, palliative massage demands sensitive, perceptive, and gentle interpersonal skills as well as a personal assessment of one’s own attitudes regarding death and dying. Denial regarding the diagnosis, fear of illness and death, frustration with the state of medical care, mood swings, depression, and suicidal tendencies — all are commonly associated with the powerful emotions experienced by individuals with terminal illness.


Palliative massage can help a person come to terms with these feelings, and even to find acceptance and peace. Palliative massage can assist the client in dealing with the tumultuous feelings experienced with a diagnosis of terminal illness, helping them to cope with the physical or mental limitations imposed by the disease or level of disability, and confront or manage their anxiety regarding loved ones who must cope with the illness and death of a person close to them. Case studies show that palliative massage provides a nurturing environment, benefi cial to stabilizing moods, easing depression, and allowing people to live the rest of their lives more fully, as it allows clients to confront their deepest fears about death and dying, leaving them with a sense of peace and comfort. Palliative massage can ease depression, anger, anxiety, and loneliness for those with terminal illness, as well as their family members and dear friends who are caregivers.


Palliative massage has been shown to be especially benefi cial to those with no family or few visitors, easing the client’s loneliness, fear, and anxiety, and extending warmth, affection, and care through the power of touch. Clients may have lost friends and other important people from their lives over the years; they may be unable to speak frankly with the individuals who currently surround them. Palliative massage can help bridge that gap, providing a human connection, easing stress and comforting the individual as he or she approaches death.


Palliative massage uses a lighter touch than most massage. Its purpose is to encourage relaxation and ease tension , so light, soothing strokes, and a comforting touch is required. The relaxation response elicited from this type of massage enables the client to approach death with less fear and anxiety, feelings that often accompany a diagnosis of terminal illness

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