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Massage Offers Real Relief from Back Pain

< Jul. 06, 2011 > -- Massage therapy appears to be on a par with pain killers and muscle relaxants in treating low back pain, one of the most common neurological problems in the U.S.

In fact, over the short term, massage was more effective than medications at easing low back pain, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Researchers in Seattle randomly assigned 401 patients to either massage or conventional treatment for chronic low back pain. Study participants were mostly middle-aged, female, and white.

Those in the conventional care group got pain relievers, anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxants, or physical therapy to relieve their back pain.

Those in the massage group were further divided into those who received massage for relaxation and those who received structural massage, which works on specific muscles and ligaments associated with back pain. The massage group received an hour-long massage once a week for 10 weeks.

Pain had eased or vanished

At 10 weeks, more than a third of those in the massage groups said their back pain was much better or gone, compared with only one in 25 patients who received usual care. Those in the massage groups were also twice as likely in that period to have spent fewer days in bed, used less anti-inflammatory medication, and engaged in more activity than the standard care group.

After a total of six months, the participants in the massage groups still had better results than those in standard care. After one year, pain and function was almost equal in all three groups.

Both massage types helped

Lead author Daniel Cherkin, Ph.D., says he was surprised that both types of massage had the same results. "I thought structural massage would have been at least a little better, and that's not the case," he says.

Massage therapy is a safe alternative to traditional treatment, Dr. Cherkin says. "Maybe one of 10 patients felt pain during or after massage, but most of those thought it was a 'good pain,'" he says. "A good massage therapist will be in tune with the patient and will ask what hurts."

One of the study's weaknesses was that those who were assigned to conventional care knew that others were receiving massage therapy and may have been disappointed to be excluded, tainting their reported improvement, says Robert Duarte, M.D., at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Manhasset, N.Y.

The study was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health.

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What Is Massage Therapy?

Rubbing areas of the body that hurt is a natural human response. Massaging muscles and soft tissue stimulates nerves, increases blood flow and relieves stress in the muscles.

These are common types of massage techniques:

  • Swedish massage. This massage technique involves the use of long, smooth strokes, strokes that knead and compress, deep circular movements, vibration, and tapping.

  • Oriental massage. This gentle technique focuses on relaxation.

  • Shiatsu. This Japanese form of massage is actually a form of acupressure, exerting massaging pressure on certain key points of the body.

  • Thai massage. This massage technique also involves the use of yoga and certain Chinese traditional medicine methods.

Massages are usually given in a quiet room, with soothing background music. The person getting the massage usually lies down on a special table or sits in a special chair.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

Annals of Internal Medicine - A Comparison of the Effects of 2 Types of Massage and Usual Care on Chronic Low Back Pain

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine - Massage Therapy

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke - Low Back Pain Fact Sheet