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Massage Today
April, 2013, Vol. 13, Issue 04

Massage Improves Range of Motion for Children with Burn Injuries

By Massage Therapy Foundation Contributor

Contributed By Jolie Haun, PhD, EdS, LMT, Derek R. Austin, MS, CMT, Beth Barberree, BA, RMT

Understanding the effects of massage is critical to advance the field. Yet, understanding the impact for a child with burn injuries is critical to improving the quality of life for someone who has experienced considerable trauma. This month's research review by the Massage Therapy Foundation looks into a pilot study conducted to examine the effect of massage on mood and range of motion (ROM) in eight children post recovery from severe burns.

Many children with burn injuries undergo considerable care in recovery. Treatment options are limited, so often patients with burn injuries pursue alternative therapies such as massage to address issues related to psychological and physical outcomes associated with burns. Little research has examined the effects of massage in children with burn injuries. Those published suggest that massage decreases distress related to change in wound dressing and may decrease severe itching. Now, Morien and colleagues extend current research with children by examining the effect of massage on mood and range of motion (ROM). Based on research conducted with adult burn survivors, the research team predicted massage would increase mood and ROM.

Participants were eight children attending a camp for pediatric burn survivors, with a mean age of 13.5 years (range 10–17 years). Five children participated in the study for 4–5 days and three participated for 3 days. All participants had thermal burns to several body parts, including arms, legs, trunk and face. Massage was provided on healed third degree burns that had previously required skin grafts. The authors defined third degree burns as the loss of skin structures at a depth that reaches the subcutaneous fat and fascia, which includes epidermis, dermis and all skin organs. Areas receiving massage were well-healed, with 2–16 years since the burn.

Four therapists participated in data collection and were blinded to the results until the end of the study. Therapists with advanced training in massage for burn scars offered massage sessions that lasted 20–25 minutes once daily, for up to 5 days. Massage provided on scar tissue consisted of 5 minutes of lengthening using long light strokes (effleurage); 5 minutes of stretching and rolling strokes between hands, fingers or thumbs (petrissage); and 2–5 minutes of small cross fiber movements (friction) to loosen the scar tissue. The last 5 minutes of the massage session included general lengthening and rolling movements. Massage therapists discussed possible needs or concerns regarding the massage before and after the sessions.

Participants reported their mood before the first massage session and after their last massage session. A visual scale using "smiley faces" that corresponded to a numerical scale was used for data collection. This method is common when conducting research with children. ROM of the knee, neck and shoulder joints was measured in degrees using a goniometer. ROM measurements were also taken on non-massaged tissue contralateral to scarred tissue to serve as a control comparison. The authors conducted a statistical analysis to determine differences in ROM and mood from pre- to post-massage.

Findings of the study indicate ROM increased after the massage sessions, in contrast to the contralateral control tissue. An objective scar assessment was not conducted; however, subjective observations by the massage therapists noted that scar tissue was red and firm before massage, while participants' scars post-massage were flesh colored, softer and the skin was more easily stretched. There was no significant difference in mood across time.

Authors concluded massage increased ROM in children with burn scars, which is consistent with studies showing that massage increases ROM in patients with injuries not resulting from burns. The authors were surprised to find no change in mood following massage considering findings of improved mood in previous studies with adult participants. The authors contend mood findings may have resulted from a "ceiling effect" because participants already had an elevated mood upon arrival to the camp.

The authors noted some study limitations including: small sample size; a quick and easy mood instrument that was likely too simple and lacked the sensitivity to measure changes accurately; and because the participants were 2–16 years post burn injury, their emotional coping strategies toward their scars had already occurred. An additional limitation, that the authors failed to note, was their sample size was too small to appropriately apply a t-test statistic; such that the authors cannot make assumptions about the data being normally distributed with equal variances, as assumed when applying parametric statistics. A non-parametric analysis method such as the Mann-Whitney U-test would be a more convincing basis for the authors to conclude significant changes in ROM with such a small sample size.

The authors do suggest more research using larger samples is needed, with measures to include affective states such as anxiety. They also propose that further investigation should address whether massage effects vary depending on stage of recovery (i.e. new versus old burn scars). The authors are planning a follow-up study to address research questions related to attitude, anxiety and self-esteem.

Though the study sample is small, this work provides good information to support the advancement of therapeutic massage for children with severe burn injuries. First, though this area of research is lacking in conclusive findings, this study does support the need for subsequent work to further explore the use of massage therapy for this vulnerable population. Second, massage therapists should use these findings as a basis for recognizing that this vulnerable population can in fact benefit from massage therapy. Finally, this research supports the expansion of scope for the application of massage therapy.

Similar to other serious conditions like cancer, there was a time when massage therapists may have avoided providing massage therapy to severe burn scar tissue for fear of causing more harm than good. However, through evidence-based research such as this reported study, we are learning as a profession when and how to appropriately apply massage therapy for individuals with burn injuries. When considering providing massage treatments for someone with severe burn scarring, it is strongly recommended that massage therapists acquire special training and consult with a physician before providing treatments.


Editor's note: For more information about massage therapy research, visit the Massage Therapy Foundation at

Click here for more information about Massage Therapy Foundation Contributor.


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