Massage Effective Treatment For Chronic Lower Back Pain


A recent study boosts claims that massage is an effective treatment for chronic lower back pain.

In the study published in the July 5 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, a group of 400 Group Health Cooperative patients, who had had low back pain for at least three months, were randomly assigned to receive one of three treatments; structural massage, relaLinkxation massage (also called Swedish), or usual care (anti- inflammatory medication) for a period of 10 weeks.

The study found that, 1 out of 3 individuals who received the hour-long massage therapy (both structural and relaxation) self-reported to have significantly less pain or no pain at all. In comparison, of the patients who received the usual care (medication) just 1 in 25 self-reported similar improvements in their back pain.

Patients in the massage groups also reported fewer days in bed, were more active, and used less anti-inflammatory medication than did those with usual care.

"We found the benefits of massage are about as strong as those reported for other effective treatments: medications, acupuncture, exercise, and yoga," said trial leader Daniel C. Cherkin, PhD, a senior investigator at Group Health Research Institute.

"And massage is at least as safe as other treatment options. So people who have persistent back pain may want to consider massage as an option."

The study found both structural and relaxation massage to be equally effective in relieving symptoms for patients.

"The massage therapists assumed structural massage would prove more effective than relaxation massage," explained Karen J. Sherman, Ph.D, MPH. "They were surprised when patients in the relaxation group got so much relief from their back pain."

Scientists are not clear about how the massage therapies brought about improvements, but speculate that, structural or relaxation, or both, massage, may work by stimulating tissue surrounding the strain, or by calming the central nervous system.

In general, its possible that the massage's effects may promote a person's ability to play an active role in their own healing. Such 'nonspecific' effects could include: spending time in a relaxing environment; receiving care from a therapist; getting advice on caring for yourself, such as exercises to do on your own; or becoming more aware of your own body, so you're better able to avoid triggers for your back pain.

"We tested this on people who had not been getting better from the usual medical approaches, Dr. Cherkin said. "If you've tried other things and you're not getting adequate relief, then massage is a reasonable thing to try."

Patients from the study continued to report improvements in their mobility and lesser pain 6 months after receiving the massage therapy.

"As expected with most treatments, the benefits of massage declined over time," Dr. Cherkin said. "But at six months after the trial started, both types of massage were still associated with improved function."

Though relaxation or Swedish massage is more widely available than structural massage that requires extra training and tends to be more expensive, structural massage is more likely to be covered by health insurance.

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