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April, 2009, Vol. 09, Issue 04 >> Chiropractic Techniques

Anaphylaxis: A Sudden and Deadly Progression, Part 2

By Dale G. Alexander, LMT, MA, PhD

The purpose of this two-part series is to raise our collective awareness as massage therapists of anaphylaxis progression, which potentially can be prevented by asking your clients a few simple questions. I am introducing Thomas Walsh, DDS, as the co-author of this article, as his perspective on anaphylaxis was most helpful in assisting me to understand the full scope of its progression.

In part 1 (MT, January 2009), we discussed my personal story in surviving an anaphylactic reaction, the detection of anaphylaxis and important background questions to ask your clients.

Part 2 has been designed to offer you more information about the primary allergens that may provoke a severe reaction and to alert you to products many massage therapists use that may trigger a reaction.

Once a person has been medically identified as susceptible to severe anaphylactic reactions, they are typically prescribed and encouraged to carry with them at all times a self-injecting device, such as EpiPen, that contains epinephrine (i.e. adrenaline). Some of these products that may be prescribed contain a double dose of epinephrine.2 Epinephrine has shown itself to be clinically effective in stabilizing the severity of an anaphylactic reaction, thus enabling a person to be transported to an emergency room for further treatment.1

The most commonly documented causes or triggers of anaphylaxis are: food, medication, insect venom, latex and exercise. In situations where a specific trigger remains unidentified, the patient is said to suffer from idiopathic (meaning "of unknown origin") anaphylaxis.1

Man drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark According to the EpiPen Web site, "Food allergies are an increasingly common cause of anaphylaxis that result in about 125 deaths each year in the United States. Some allergists believe this perceived rise in incidence may be attributed to increased exposure to certain foods, such as peanuts, before a child's immune system is mature enough to handle them." There are eight types of foods that are accountable for 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions. The foods that most commonly cause anaphylaxis are: peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, pecans, etc.), shellfish, fish, milk, soy, wheat and eggs. Sulfites added to foods can also set off anaphylactic reactions. For a small number of people who do not otherwise experience food-related anaphylaxis, exercising within a few hours of eating has been documented as an allergic trigger.1

Within our profession of massage therapy, many of the oils used contain either peanut or almond oil. These may be triggers for clients who have latent allergies they may not know about. According to a 1998 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), approximately 550,000 serious allergic reactions to medications occur annually in U.S. hospitals.3 While the prevalence of drug allergies in the general population is unclear, allergic reactions to medications cause the highest number of documented deaths from anaphylaxis each year. Penicillin accounts for an estimated 75 percent of the known anaphylaxis deaths in the United States.4

Most deaths occur in people who have no medical history of allergic reactions.4 I would add that probably no medical history existed because many people, like myself, didn't take their first allergic reaction seriously enough to seek out allergy testing. As just stated, death from anaphylactic shock can occur from a person's very first exposure to an allergen.

"The most common medications that cause allergic reactions are: penicillin, sulfa antibiotics, allopurinol, seizure and anti-arrhythmia medications, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen, muscle relaxants, and certain post-surgery fluids. Other medications known to cause severe allergic reactions include vaccines, radiocontrast media, antihypertensives, insulin, and blood products."1

In a recent conversation with a client, Mel Eaton, DDS (who grew up on a peanut farm), we speculated that the top two severe allergens (penicillin and peanuts) have a common link - mold. Penicillin is derived from mold and the way peanuts are stored promotes the growth of mold.

It is estimated that 0.5 percent to 5 percent of the U.S. population, or as many as 13 million people, have insect venom allergies.5 Many of these venom-sensitive individuals are at risk for life-threatening anaphylactic reactions. An estimated 40 to 100 deaths due to anaphylaxis caused by insect venom are reported each year, half of which are attributed to fire ants, an increasingly common pest that is spreading throughout the United States. The insects most commonly associated with triggering severe allergic reactions belong to the Hymenoptera order of insects. This order comprises: bees, wasps, yellow jackets, hornets and ants, especially the fire ant.

Unlike people susceptible to anaphylaxis triggered by food, medication or latex, those allergic to insect venom have the option of undergoing immunotherapy, a preventive course of treatment that may provide long-term protection against insect sting allergies.1

An additional few points for your consideration include that using latex gloves for inter-oral work may trigger allergic responses in your clients. This did occur for me once over my 29 years of clinical practice. Nitrile gloves are now considered to be the best for such applications. Also, many of the essential oils or scented candles that are used by Massage Therapists can trigger respiratory allergies. Rarely do these provoke a systemic anaphylaxis but they are not practice builders either.

This two-part series only scratches the surface of the complex subject of anaphylaxis, yet presents you with those triggers considered most deadly. I encourage you to immediately integrate the proposed three questions with both new and established clients:

  1. Have you ever had any severe allergic reaction of any kind?
  2. Have you had a previous exposure to the suspected allergen without any reaction?
  3. Have you told your physician about your reaction and requested to be tested to determine the severity of your allergy?

Your genuine interest, willingness to listen and personal encouragement for your clients to seek out advice from their physician may save a life.


  3. Lazarou J, Pomeranz BH, Corey PN. Incidence of adverse drug reactions in hospitalized patients: a meta-analysis of prospective studies. JAMA, April 15, 1998;279(15):1200-5.
  4. Joint Task Force on Practice Parameters. The diagnosis and management of anaphylaxis. J Allergy Clin Immunol, June 1998;101:S465-528. 

Click here for more information about Dale G. Alexander, LMT, MA, PhD.


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