Massage and touch-based treatment are popular despite limited evidence from high quality clinical trials. This article reviews the rationale and evidence of treating older patients with psychiatric symptoms by touch-based therapy.
Narrative literature review, based on Medline search with the following key words: massage, social touch, affective touch, clinical trial, meta-analysis. Citations of identified articles were searched for additional relevant studies.
Evidence from clinical trials in adult patients with mainly chronic disorders of the musculoskeletal system suggests that massage therapy results in significant short-term improvement of symptoms; however, treatment effects appear not to be sustained. In addition, conclusions are difficult to draw owing to very heterogeneous study interventions, difficulties with definition of control conditions and treatment outcomes. There appears to be better evidence for improvement of psychological variables and subjective symptoms, such as pain and quality of life. A neuronal system of affective and social touch has been identified with specific afferents from C‑fibre coupled low threshold mechanoreceptors projecting into the insular cortex and the limbic system. This system may also mediate effects of massage in adult patients. Positive clinical trials for depressive symptoms of dementia and for behavioral symptoms of advanced dementia are available with encouraging results.
The neuronal system of social and affective touch suggests a potential mechanism of action of touch-based interventions in geriatric psychiatry. In addition, it provides a rationale for applying and designing novel touch-based treatment strategies as adjunctive treatment for psychiatric disorders of old age.