Massage for Low Back Pain

BackpainA recent study proving that massage therapy is effective for lower back pain, was featured on NPRs "All Things Considered."

Low back pain is very common. It often goes away after several days or weeks, but it may last for months or years or periodically recur. The usual treatments for low back pain include drugs (painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, and muscle relaxants), physical therapy, back exercises, and education about ways to prevent back injury and deal with back pain. Some people use alternative treatments for low back pain, such as chiropractic or massage therapy.

This study compared the short-term and long-term effects of relaxation massage, structural massage, and usual care for people with persisting low back pain.

The researchers first gathered information about the participants' symptoms and how much those symptoms limited their daily activities. They then randomly assigned each participant to receive relaxation massage, structural massage, or usual medical care without massage. Participants assigned to the massage groups got about 1 hour of massage once a week for 10 weeks. The researchers remeasured participants' symptoms and ability to perform daily activities after completing the 10 massage treatments, and then at 6 months and 1 year after starting massage therapy.

Participants who received massage had less pain and were better able to perform daily activities after 10 weeks than those who received usual care. The benefits of massage lasted for 6 months but were less clear at 1 year, when pain and function had improved about equally in all 3 groups. The type of massage did not seem to make a difference. Symptoms and ability to perform activities improved about the same in the 2 massage groups.

(The full report is titled "A Comparison of the Effects of 2 Types of Massage and Usual Care on Chronic Low Back Pain. A Randomized, Controlled Trial." It is in the 5 July 2011 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine (volume 155, pages 1-9). The authors are D.C. Cherkin, K.J. Sherman, J. Kahn, R. Wellman, A.J. Cook, E. Johnson, J. Erro, K. Delaney, and R.A. Deyo.)