Massage: A Supplement to Alcohol Detox

By Massage Therapy Foundation Contributor

Massage: A Supplement to Alcohol Detox

By Massage Therapy Foundation Contributor

Contributed By Kelly Skellinger, LMT; Derek R. Austin, PT, DPT, MS, BCTMB, CSCS; Natalie Lorick, LMT

Here is a sobering statistic, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), an estimated 88,000 people, approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women, die from alcohol-related causes annually,1 making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. The first cause is tobacco. The second is physical inactivity and poor diet.

Treatment for those suffering from alcohol dependency often includes regular participation in mutual support groups, the use of prescribed medications to reduce drinking and prevent relapse, and behavioral treatments through counseling. Alcohol detoxification and the management of both physiological and psychological alcohol withdrawal symptoms are, however, the first steps in preparing the body for the long road to alcohol recovery.

Massage As a Prescription

This research, "Massage Therapy Improves the Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome," was conducted at an alcohol and drug detoxification clinic located at Royal Brisbane Hospital, Brisbane, Queensland Australia. The study incorporated a daily prescription of massage therapy into patient alcohol withdrawal syndrome management plans and found massage therapy to be a complementary treatment to traditional medical detoxification for alcohol.2

This four-day study included 50 participants, of which 25 were put into an experimental group and 25 were placed into a control group, all of whom were consecutively admitted to the clinic and had a mean age of 43.8 years. A total of 41 participants were male and 9 were female. The average reported alcohol consumption per participant was 230 grams of ethanol, the intoxicating agent present in alcoholic beverages daily. According to the NIAAA, there are 14 grams of alcohol per one standard alcoholic beverage,3 meaning the participants' average reported alcohol consumption was about 16 standard alcoholic beverages daily.

Participants in the experimental group received 15 minutes of seated bedside massage at 8:30 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. each day for four consecutive days, starting on the day of admission. Massage was performed to fully-clothed participants and consisted of slow strokes to the back, shoulders, neck, and head. The control group rested on or beside their beds for 15-minute intervals without massage, according to the study. Patients were discharged by hospital staff at the end of day four or five, or of their volition prior to day four against hospital medical advice.

Study Outcomes & Participant Responses

The study measured the efficacy of massage therapy treatment by utilizing the Alcohol Withdrawal Scale (AWS), a tool for measuring physiological alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as one-minute radial pulse rate and respiration rate at the beginning and end of each 15-minute massage or rest interval. Pre-massage and post-massage data were analyzed using analysis of variance (ANOVA). Data was examined on days one through four.

Researchers measured psychological alcohol withdrawal symptoms by asking participants to complete a free response questionnaire, assessing the advantages and disadvantages of the detoxification process. Physiological results showed that post massage the patient pulse rate was significantly reduced on three of the four days of the massage intervention. Massage also contributed to changes in AWS score early on in the detoxification admission and improvements in respiratory function at the end of detoxification.

According to the study, the strongest impact of massage on AWS scores and pulse rate was post-massage on day one. Pulse rate also showed greater improvement on three of the four days in the experimental group compared to the control group.

Psychological results were evident in the experimental group's higher positive response rate to the questionnaire: "All participants reported at least one positive element of their detoxification (92% massage, 62% control). Regarding the 'admission experience,' 91% (10/11) of those who reported that staff was supportive (10/11), 55% (6/11) of those who reported that the educational program was beneficial and 86% (6/7) of those who reported that the meals were enjoyable were in the massage group," the study stated. "Regarding 'physical and psychological health' 57% (4/7) of those reporting feeling healthy were in the massage group as were 100% (5/5) of those who reported that they felt safe."2

While researchers have concluded that massage therapy does show promise as an adjunct to traditional medical detoxification for alcohol, they also believe that future research is necessary. The authors suggest future studies could determine the degree to which the positive effects of massage last, the influence of staff contact on patients throughout the detoxification process, and how best to process data when patients abandon the program prior to day four.


  1. Alcohol Facts and Statistics. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), March 2018.
  2. Reader M, Young R, et al. Massage Therapy Improves the Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.  J Altern Complement Med, 2005 Apr;11(2):311-3.
  3. What is a standard drink? National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), March 2018.

Editor's Note: The preceding research synopsis is authored by volunteers from MTF's Writing Workgroup. To learn more please visit their columnist page.