MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Spinal epidural haematoma (SEH) is an uncommon but serious emergency condition. A team of emergency physicians reported the case of a SEH associated with traditional massage initially presenting with delayed lower paraplegia.

A 20-year-old man was seen with bilateral lower extremity weakness and numbness, symptoms that had started three hours prior to presentation. He had received a Thai massage by a friend three days before. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed a spinal epidural lesion suspicious for haematoma extending from C6 to T2 levels. Emergent surgical intervention for cord decompression was performed. An epidural haematoma with cord compression at C6-T2 levels was identified intra-operatively. No evidence of abnormal vascular flow or AV malformations was identified. The authors concluded that, similar to chiropractic manipulation, massage may be associated with spinal trauma. Emergency physicians must maintain a high index of suspicion for spinal epidural haematomas in patients with a history of massage or chiropractic manipulation with neurologic complaints, because delays in diagnosis may worsen clinical outcome.

Thai massage therapists typically use no lubricants. The patient remains clothed during a treatment. There is constant body contact between the therapist – who, in the above case, was a lay person – and the patient.

The authors of this case report rightly stress that such adverse events are rare – but they are by no means unknown. In 2003, I reviewed the risks and found 16 reports of adverse effects as well as 4 case series on the subject (like for all other manual therapies, there is no reporting system of adverse effects). The majority of adverse effects were – like the above case – associated with exotic types of manual massage or massage delivered by laymen. Professionally trained massage therapists were rarely implicated. The reported adverse events include cerebrovascular accidents, displacement of a ureteral stent, embolization of a kidney, haematoma, leg ulcers, nerve damage, posterior interosseous syndrome, pseudoaneurism, pulmonary embolism, ruptured uterus, strangulation of neck, thyrotoxicosis and various pain syndromes. In the majority of these instances, there was little doubt about a cause-effect relationship. Serious adverse effects were associated mostly with massage techniques other than ‘Swedish’ massage.

For patients, this means that massage is still amongst the safest form of manual therapy (best to employ qualified therapists and avoid the exotic versions of massage because they are not supported by evidence and carry the highest risks). For doctors, it means to be vigilant, if patients present with neurological problems after having enjoyed a massage.

3 Responses to Massage therapy: generally safe but not totally risk-free

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