Thursday, January 6, 2011

Research: Only limited evidence that massage is helpful to those with autism

From Reuters Health:

Massage has become a fairly popular alternative therapy for autism, but there is only limited evidence suggesting it is helpful, a new research review shows.

Researchers say some studies did find benefits -- for instance in language and social skills -- but small patient samples and other problems make the results unreliable.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of developmental disorders that, to varying degrees, hinder a person's ability to communicate, socialize and build relationships.

There is no cure, but special education programs and behavioral and language therapies are standard. Often, parents also turn to alternative approaches for additional help, including special diets or art and music therapy.

In general, massage or "touch" therapy is thought to have both physical and emotional benefits. For children with autism, it could have effects on the nervous and hormonal systems that may help ease some of their difficulties, explained Dr. Myeong Soo Lee of the Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine in Daejeon, the lead researcher on the new study.

And parents seem to be putting some hope into that idea: Two recent U.S. studies of children with ASDs found that 11 percent to 16 percent had undergone massage therapy.

But whether it actually works is unclear.

In their search of the medical literature, Lee and his colleagues found only six clinical trials that tested massage therapy against standard therapies for children with autism.

There were some promising findings, Lee said. Children who received massage plus special education, for instance, improved their social abilities and "daily living" skills, like dressing and feeding themselves.

And those who had massage added to language therapy made bigger strides in communicating than those who had language therapy alone.

However, all of the studies had fundamental shortcomings, according to the researchers: None included more than 50 children and they lasted only between one and five months.

There were also problems in the studies' methods that put them at a high risk of bias. In some cases, for example, the researchers assessing the children knew which ones had gotten massage therapy and which ones had not, so they might be more inclined to see progress in the former.

The bottom line, the researchers write, is that "firm conclusions cannot be drawn" as to whether massage therapy aids children with autism.

On the other hand, the researchers are not advising parents against finding a massage therapist with experience in working with children with autism.

If parents are interested in the therapy, Lee said, he knows of no serious potential risks of massage for children with autism. But as far as effectiveness, more rigorous studies are warranted, he and his colleagues write.