Written by Helen Cooke and the CAM-Cancer Consortium.
Updated July 7, 2015

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

What is it?

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a relaxation technique that involves the sequential tensing and releasing of major skeletal muscle groups with the aim of inducing relaxation.

Application and dosage

PMR may be taught by health care professionals, including clinical psychologists and nurses, as well as hypnotherapists, yoga instructors, and other complementary practitioners. Training may be conducted in groups or one-on-one, during one or a series of sessions, or via a CD/audiotape as a self-help technique.

Training may be offered before, during, or after medical treatment or procedures. PMR sessions commonly last for 20 to 30 minutes, but are not standardized and may therefore vary in duration, frequency and the number of involved muscle groups, and may also include deep breathing techniques.

History and provider

Edmund Jacobson, an American physician, drew on studies in psychology and physiology, to develop his own understanding of the mind-body relationship and its role in health, and a method of stress reduction that he described it in his book Progressive Relaxation, published in 1938.

He stated that the mind and voluntary muscles work together in an integrated way. Keeping the mind calm allows muscles to relax, and freeing the body of tension reduces sympathetic activity and anxiety. He initially developed PMR to induce relaxation by promoting awareness of tension in skeletal muscles. Bernstein and Borkovec later developed a shortened, modified procedure that is now the most frequently used form of PMR1.

Claims of efficacy/mechanism of action/alleged indication(s)

PMR is a technique based on a theory that a psychobiological state called neuromuscular hypertension is the basis for a variety of negative emotional states and psychosomatic diseases and that the body’s muscle tension develops from anxiety-provoking thoughts and events.15 The cognitive and physiological pathways involved in negative emotional states are complex and the extent to which learning to relax muscles is an efficient way to overcome self-reported tension in anxiety disorders is presently unclear. Although the exact mechanism of action is unclear,  muscle relaxation techniques are reportedly effective in decreasing muscle tension in the body.21

 Alterations in sympathetic nervous system activity, including decrease in pulse rate, blood pressure, and musculoskeletal tone, and altered neuroendocrine function, have been observed in relaxed subjects. It has been suggested that deep somatic restfulness reduces anxiety and physical arousal2 and that muscular relaxation may directly inhibit anxiety and the muscular activity that generally precedes nausea and vomiting. It has been proposed that learning relaxation techniques can help people feel more in control of side effects and therefore less anxious.2

Some researchers have suggested that PMR may serve as a distraction for patients who undergo chemotherapy,3 whereas others propose that distraction is only part of the effectiveness of such interventions.4

Prevalence of use

A population-based study carried out in the USA of 4 000 cancer survivors who were followed up 10 to 24 months after their diagnosis found that 43 percent used some form of relaxation therapy5.

Legal issues

Although many institutions and individuals offer PMR training, what they teach is not standardized, and no credentialing process is available for PMR instructors.

Cost(s) and expenditures

PMR can be administered or taught relatively easily and is therefore in most cases a relatively inexpensive therapy.


Helen Cooke, CAM-Cancer Consortium. Progressive Muscle Relaxation [online document]. http://www.cam-cancer.org/The-Summaries/Mind-body-interventions/Progressive-Muscle-Relaxation. July 7, 2015.

Document history

Last revised and updated in July 2015 by Helen Cooke.

Summary last updated in December 2013 by Helen Cooke.

Summary fully revised and updated in July 2012 by Helen Cooke.

Summary first published in July 2011, authored by Helen Cooke.


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  19. Song QH, Xu RM, Zhang QH, Ma M, Zhao XP. Relaxation training during chemotherapy for breast cancer improves mental health and lessens adverse events. Int J Clin Exp Med. 2013;6(10):979-84.
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