OBJECTIVES After many years out of the limelight, massage therapy is now experiencing a revival. The aim of this systematic review is to evaluate its potential for harm. METHODS Computerized literature searches were carried out in four databases. All articles reporting adverse effects of any type of massage therapy were retrieved. Adverse effects relating to massage oil or ice were excluded. No language restrictions were applied. Data were extracted and evaluated according to predefined criteria. RESULTS Sixteen case reports of adverse effects and four case series were found. The majority of adverse effects were associated with exotic types of manual massage or massage delivered by laymen, while massage therapists were rarely implicated. The reported adverse events include cerebrovascular accidents, displacement of a ureteral stent, embolization of a kidney, haematoma, leg ulcers, nerve damage, posterior interosseous syndrome, pseudoaneurism, pulmonary embolism, ruptured uterus, strangulation of neck, thyrotoxicosis and various pain syndromes. In the majority of these instances, there can be little doubt about a cause-effect relationship. Serious adverse effects were associated mostly with massage techniques other than 'Swedish' massage. CONCLUSION Massage is not entirely risk free. However, serious adverse events are probably true rarities.
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