Massages Reduce Chronic Back Pain

A weekly massage reduced back pain better than using only medications and exercises, and the effects of the 10-week treatment lasted for six months, according to a new study.

"This is important because chronic back pain is among the most common reasons people see doctors and alternative practitioners, including massage therapists," said study researcher Daniel Cherkin, a senior investigator at the nonprofit Group Health Research Institute in Seattle. "It's also a common cause of disability, absenteeism, and 'presenteeism,' when people are at work but can't perform well."

Massage is one of the most popular alternative treatments for neck and back pain, the study said, but there has been limited evidence that it is effective.

The study was published July 5 in the journal the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Needing some kneading

The 400 study participants had suffered from chronic low back pain with no apparent medical cause for at least three months.

One-third of them received a structural massage every week, one-third received a relaxation massage and the remainder continued treating their pain as they had been, typically with painkillers, muscle relaxers, reducing their activity levels or exercising.

The study was the first to compare relaxation massage, in which maneuvers are designed to relax muscles, and structural massage, which is aimed at releasing tension in specific tissues and joints, the researchers said.

Both massage groups reported that their symptoms were less bothersome after 10 weeks than the group that didn't receive massages. Six months later, participants who hadn't received massages were still reporting worse symptoms than those who had, the researchers found.

The types of massage worked equally well to reduce pain, the study found.

"The massage therapists assumed structural massage would prove more effective than relaxation massage," said study researcher Karen J. Sherman, also a senior investigator at the institute. "They were surprised when patients in the relaxation group got so much relief from their back pain."

But here's the rub

Participants who didn't receive massages were aware that others were getting them, and this may have been led them to report worse symptoms.

The researchers said their next work will include examining the reasons each type of massage was effective – such as whether it stimulated tissue, calmed the central nervous system or simply allowed participants to spend time in a relaxed environment.

Structural massages are more likely to be covered by health insurance plans than relaxation massage, the researchers said, but relaxation massages are more widely available.

Pass it on:  A weekly massage could help low back pain.

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Live Science Staff
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