It doesn’t only afflict athletes, the infirm, or those with significant injuries. Chronic low back pain affects millions of Americans every day—people working, playing, and functioning in their daily life. Fortunately, massage has been proven to be an effective choice for many kinds of persistent or chronic back pain—maybe even yours.
In Group Health research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2011, massage therapy was shown to help ease chronic low back pain and improve function. This study, led by Daniel C. Cherkin, PhD, a senior investigator at Group Health Research Institute, was the first study to compare two common types of massage—structural and relaxation (Swedish). It found that both types of massage worked well, with few side effects.
The downsides of chronic back pain go well beyond your own aches and pains; employers have a stake in back health, too. Workers often lose productivity due to chronic pain. Of the pain conditions that cause lost productivity, back pain is second only to headaches, costing employers billions every year.
A healthy back equals better function. People are more able to work, take care of themselves, and be active. “This is important because chronic back pain is among the most common reasons people see doctors and alternative practitioners, including massage therapists,” Dr. Cherkin says. “It’s also a common cause of disability, absenteeism, and ‘presenteeism,’ when people are at work but can’t perform well.”
“As expected with most treatments, the benefits of massage declined over time,” Dr. Cherkin adds. “But six months after our study 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,” he says. “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.”
Every person is different. You need to find out what works best for you. Doctors can identify the small number of individuals whose back pain is caused by a serious disease—and can prescribe various treatments for them. But you are the most important person in bringing about rapid recovery and a return to normal activities. Talk to your health care team to see if massage can help you.
by Julian Rogers and Rebecca Hughes
From Group Health Research Institute
From Group Health Cooperative
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 than relaxation massage.