Massage helped relax people but no more than other cheaper therapies
Massage is no more effective at cutting anxiety than deep breathing and soothing music, say US researchers.
The study of 68 people, reported in Depression and Anxiety, showed anxiety symptoms were halved for those given 10 massage sessions over three months.
But those given relaxation therapy, which is much cheaper, improved by the same amount.
Massage experts say the primary aim of massage is to treat damage to soft tissue rather than relaxation.
The study looked at people with generalised anxiety disorder, a condition involving excessive worry that makes normal life difficult.
The patients were given one of three treatments. One group had massage. The other two groups had relaxation therapy (breathing deeply while lying down) or thermotherapy (having their arms and legs wrapped up intermittently with heating pads and warm towels).
All three therapies were given in a relaxing environment with soft lighting and quiet music.
At the end of the treatments, all three groups reported their anxiety had decreased by about 40% - and about 50% three months later.
Lead researcher, Dr Karen Sherman from the Seattle based Group Health Centre for Health Studies said they were surprised to find that the benefits of massage were no greater than those of the same number of sessions of 'thermotherapy' or listening to relaxing music.
"This suggests that the benefits of massage may be due to a generalised relaxation response," she said.
"Treatment in a relaxing room is much less expensive than the other treatments (massage or thermotherapy), so it might be the most cost-effective option for people with generalised anxiety disorder who want to try a relaxation-oriented complementary medicine therapy."
But massage organisations pointed out that massage aims to do more than relax people.
Susan Findlay, spokesman for the General Council for Massage Therapies, said massage was not just about dealing with emotional issues and relaxation.
"Massage therapists do corrective work with soft tissue such as muscles and tendons. They try to make these tissues work as well as possible," she said.
"However, by releasing tension in a shoulder for example, massage may also reduce pain and so make the person feel more relaxed.
"This can give the person being treated a powerful psychological boost."