When someone has a terminal illness, they might receive palliative care, which is a treatment plan that aims to make the remainder of their life as comfortable as possible. It includes pain relief, emotional support, and other treatments to improve the patient’s quality of life. They may also receive hospice care, which is care when a person is not expected to live longer than six months, and they have chosen to focus on comfort care rather than curative care. 

End-of-life massage therapy is often used as part of both palliative care and hospice. It can provide relief from pain, as well as emotional difficulties like anxiety and depression. This article explores what palliative care massage is, its benefits, and how to access it.

What is end-of-life massage therapy?

End-of-life massage therapy is a gentle massage treatment for patients who are suffering from a terminal illness and nearing the end of their life. It’s a part of the holistic care package designed to provide as much comfort and relief as possible.

A palliative care massage uses gentler techniques than a traditional massage. It’s completely tailored to the patient’s individual needs. A hospice massage therapist will consult with the patient or their loved ones, and the medical care team beforehand to learn about any particular areas of discomfort. Then they’ll create an individual plan for their hospice massage.

The benefits of massage for hospice patients

Massage therapy in end-of-life can provide many physical and emotional benefits.

1. Reduces pain

Massage therapy has a long history of being used to treat muscle pain, joint stiffness, and even nerve pain. Massage therapy may also help reduce any fatigue, nausea and, insomnia, and stress a patient might be experiencing. In some cases, it can reduce the need for medications that may have strong side effects.

2. Soothes strong emotions

Dealing with a terminal illness can feel emotionally overwhelming, and may lead to anxiety and depression. Massage therapy has been proven to help improve mental health, providing comfort and relaxation.

3. Has a stabilizing effect

Massage therapy helps to stabilize blood pressure and heart rate as well as regulate hormones. It can also stimulate a release of endorphins and serotonin — “happy” brain chemicals — and reduce the stress hormone cortisol.

4. Provides one-on-one connection

End-of-life massage therapy gives the patient dedicated one-on-one time with another person where the focus is completely on them. It can help them feel cared for, nurtured, and comforted. Touch is a powerful and effective way to connect with others.

Which approach is appropriate for therapists providing massage in hospice care?

Massage therapists who work with end-of-life patients are trained to use gentle techniques. Their techniques may vary by session depending on how the patient is feeling.

Hospice massage therapists often use Swedish massage techniques like hypnotic stroking and passive touch. These involve lightly touching or stroking the skin without applying much pressure. If someone’s experiencing too much physical pain to tolerate any kind of pressure, the massage therapist can simply hold parts of the body to bring warmth and comfort. This can be as simple as holding the patient’s hand between theirs.

How to find an end-of-life massage therapist

First, ask hospital staff if they have a dedicated massage therapist on the hospice team. If not, the patient’s doctor may be able to recommend a specialized massage therapist. A simple online search can also provide a list of practitioners including their services and customer reviews.

Can massage be claimed as a medical expense?

Whether you can claim massage therapy in end-of-life as a medical expense depends on the individual insurance plan and provider, so make sure to contact your insurer beforehand. Massage therapy is normally included in hospice care and can be provided without additional charges. If the patient is not in hospice, the insurance company usually requires a physician’s order for massage.

Unfortunately, Medicare doesn’t cover massage therapy as an independent treatment, so the patient will have to pay for the massage out of pocket if it is not received as part of a hospice program. However, if that is the case, you can always ask your healthcare team for referrals, as sometimes massage therapists offer their services free of charge for people at the end of their life.

Another option to look into is paying for medical massage therapy with a flexible savings account (FSA) or health savings account (HSA) if the patient has one through their employer. These expenses can sometimes be paid for with these types of accounts.

Steps to finding peace and comfort

During the final stage of life, everyone deserves to feel as comfortable, enriched, and fulfilled as possible. Alternative therapies such as massage therapy can help with this. When diagnosed with a terminal illness, it’s also a good time to consider other decisions that can be made. Our complete end-of-life planning guide provides advice on support for all areas of end-of-life, from getting your affairs in order to planning your legacy.