Massage may be as effective as medication for low back pain, study shows

Aug 9 2011
A study recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine compared the effectiveness of two types of massage and conventional medical treatment in helping patients with low back pain, and found that massage may be more effective than medication.

Previous studies examined the effects of structural massage, which focuses on specific muscles and other soft tissues, but had not analyzed the effects of relaxation massage, which has a broader focus on the overall body. Relaxation massage, sometimes called "Swedish" massage, is more widely known and generally less expensive.

"The massage therapists assumed structural massage would prove more effective than relaxation massage,” said Karen J. Sherman, PhD, senior investigator and one of the studies' authors. However, the results of the study indicated relaxation and structural massages were equally effective.

The study was primarily conducted by researchers from the Group Health Research Institute. The 400 patients who had low back pain with no determined cause were randomly divided into three groups to receive different treatments. Those who were not chosen for one of the massage groups received medication, while the massage participants had weekly treatments that were an hour long each.

The experiment lasted 10 weeks, and the researchers found that massage patients were significantly more likely to report decreased or eliminated back pain at the end of the trial. They also used less anti-inflammatory medication, spent less time in bed, and were more active at that point.

Six months after the treatment had begun, those who had received massages still reported improved function, although the benefits did not last a year. However, researchers noted that other treatment options also lose effect over time.

Daniel Cherkin, PhD, the lead investigator, indicated that massage is a safe treatment option with benefits comparable to medication, exercise, yoga and acupuncture, all reported to have some effect on back pain. The researchers concluded that further study is needed to determine how the two types of massage relieve pain.

Cherkin also noted that chronic back pain is very common and can cause disability, absenteeism or poor performance at work, among other negative effects, and massage may improve quality of life and the ability to work and be active.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), part of the National Institutes of Health, stated that 4 out of 5 adults in the U.S. suffer significant low back pain at some point in their lives. The condition is a leading cause of doctor's visits and a major factor in work absences or work-related disabilities.