Most Popular in:

Body Treatments

Email This Item! Print This Item!

New Study Indicates Massage Helps Ease Chronic Back Pain

Posted: July 11, 2011

page 2 of 3

"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." After one year, the benefits of massage were no longer significant.

The bottom line: "We found the benefits of massage are about as strong as those reported for other effective treatments: medications, acupuncture, exercise, and yoga," Dr. Cherkin said. "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."

Prior studies of massage for back pain had tested only structural forms of massage, not relaxation massage. But relaxation (also called Swedish) massage is the most widely available and is taught in massage schools. It aims to promote a feeling of relaxation throughout the body. By contrast, structural massage involves identifying and focusing on specific pain-related "soft tissues" (like muscles and ligaments). It requires extra training and may be more expensive -- but more likely to be covered by health insurance plans -- than relaxation massage.

"The massage therapists assumed structural massage would prove more effective than relaxation massage," said Dr. Cherkin's colleague Karen J. Sherman, PhD, MPH, a senior investigator at Group Health Research Institute. "They were surprised when patients in the relaxation group got so much relief from their back pain."

Next steps include figuring out whether the structural and relaxation massages were equally effective for the same -- or for different -- reasons:

  • Structural or relaxation massage, or both, might have specific effects, such as stimulating tissue or calming the central nervous system.
  • Either or both might work through "nonspecific effects" that may promote a person's ability to play an active role in their own healing. Possible nonspecific effects include: being touched; spending time in a relaxing environment; receiving care from a therapist who seems caring; 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.
  • Some combination of specific and nonspecific effects might be at play.