Massage reduces pain and improves function in patients with symptomatic osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee, according to a new trial. Although massage is known to relieve various painful musculoskeletal conditions, this is the first prospective, randomized trial assessing the therapy for knee OA.

Doctors at St. Barnabas Ambulatory Care Center in Livingston, N.J., recruited 68 patients with radiographically confirmed knee OA. The volunteers—mostly women in their late 60s—were randomized to a control group or to Swedish-massage treatment, which was given in twice weekly, hour-long sessions in weeks one through four and in once-weekly sessions in weeks five through eight. The control group continued to receive conventional care, including pain medication and hot or cold therapy, and then got massage therapy from weeks 9-16.

Eight weeks of massage resulted in substantial improvement in pain, stiffness, physical function, walking, and range of motion compared with conventional care. The improvements were sustained at 16 weeks. The physician-researchers say massage may diminish symptoms and improve the course of OA by increasing circulation to the affected joint, improving the tone of supportive musculature, enhancing joint flexibility, and relieving pain.

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“Given the limitations and potential adverse effects of [current] treatments for OA,” conclude the authors, “massage therapy seems to be a viable option as an adjunct to more conventional treatment” (Arch Intern Med. 2006; 166:2533-2538).