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Massage Benefits for HIV-Positive Children

By Alex A. Kecskes

Today, millions of children worldwide live with HIV. Regrettably, global access to antiretroviral drugs is not readily available. Massage therapy, which has been shown to improve immune function in HIV-positive adults and adolescents, may boost the immune systems of young children living with HIV.

A strong immune system allows the body to shore up its disease-fighting arsenal. In contrast, a weakened immune system is an open invitation for disease. For HIV patients, the immune system must be continuously built up to prevent the patient from succumbing to the disease. Research has proven the benefits of massage therapy among patients who were HIV positive. Massage boosts immune system function by reducing anxiety and stress, increasing white blood cell counts and decreasing the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which has been noted to destroy immune cells. Massage has also been shown to activate the body's natural killer cells.

Although massage therapy, consisting of rubbing, kneading, squeezing and stretching of muscles, has not been regularly prescribed for HIV or AIDS, recent research suggest that properly administered massage therapy may help preserve the immune systems of HIV-positive children who lack access to antiretroviral medication.
Studies at the Mayo Clinic found that HIV patients who underwent massage therapy had increased levels of natural killer (NK) cells that fight viral cells. Measuring cellular levels of natural killer cells and other immune system helper cells has been the metric used by researchers to determine the efficacy of massage therapy.

In a recent study*, 54 HIV-positive children without antiretroviral medication were randomly assigned to either a massage group or a friendly visit control group. Those in the massage group received two 20-minute massage sessions per week for 12 weeks. Those in the friendly visit control group received two 20-minute friendly visits. Trained nurses administered moderate-pressure stroking and kneading massages. The study revealed that massage therapy appears to have a positive impact on immune function in HIV-positive children not receiving antiretroviral medications. Massaged children showed reduced lymphocyte loss (lymphocytes are the body's primary means of immune function).

In evaluating massage therapy as beneficial for those suffering from HIV**, the factors that appeared to strengthen the immune system were pressure strokes, dosage and duration of massage therapy. The effect on the immune system was even more pronounced when pressure was applied with multiple-dose massages of longer duration. A full-body stress management approach was most beneficial. The most effective techniques were twice weekly, one-hour sessions of acupressure, trigger-point therapy and deep strokes extended over several months for best immune-enhancing results.

If a child is HIV-positive, first consult a primary care physician before attempting massage therapy. The doctor may recommend the appropriate treatment. If massage is suggested, find a licensed massage therapist who is nationally certified through the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (www.ncbtmb.org) or the American Massage Therapy Association (www.amtamassage.org). Note: Medicare and most private insurance do not cover massage.

*Preliminary Report on the Efficacy of Massage Therapy to Preserve the Immune System in Children without Antiretroviral Medication.” University of Miami School of Medicine, Division of Disease Prevention, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Department of Medicine, and Touch Research Institutes; and staff at Robert Reid Cabral Children’s Hospital in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

** Diego MA, Field T, Hernandez-Reif M, Shaw K, Friedman L, Ironson G. HIV adolescents show improved immune function following massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 2001;106:35-45.

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