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A study by the American Massage Therapy Association found in 2001 that massage therapy is a legitimate aid for lower back pain relief and an effect adjunct to lower back treatments.
Low back pain is said to be one of the most common reasons people seek medical care. The National Institute of Health reports that it is the second most common neurological ailment and the most common job-related disability. Americans spend around $50 billion each year on this condition, according to the National Institute on Neurological Disorders. Chronic low back pain is a condition that persists for more than three months and is progressive. It is a worrisome, aggravating condition and many Americans are seeking alternative, complementary treatment methods.

A study by the American Massage Therapy Association found in 2001 that massage therapy is a legitimate aid for lower back pain relief and an effect adjunct to lower back treatments. The research of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami found that massage lessens lower back pain, improves sleep, and alleviates depression and anxiety. Massage is a popular complementary treatment for low back pain but recent reviews have not supported the use of massage as an effective treatment for the condition.

A recent study of 401 patients with a diagnosis of chronic low back pain was done by a large health group in Seattle, Washington. A surprising 33% of patients that received massage reported a reduction in low back pain, fewer days in bed, and decreased use of anti-inflammatory medications. The patients who received massage treatment had not only improved symptom reports, but scored significantly better on function tests as well. Dr. Daniel Cherkin, an epidemiologist over the study, said that the study was credible. He mentioned that the study followed a randomized design, had a high follow-up rate, and a large sample size. Dr. Cherkin did note that a limit of the study was that it was done with mostly white, middle-class people who were in good health other than their back pain. Orthopedic and neurosurgeons argue that the benefits are short term in relation to increase in function and pain relief because the nature of the pain is of nerve and skeletal nature and massage only helps relieve pain associated with muscle tissue.

Just how massage works to relieve back pain is unclear and unknown but researchers believe that massage stimulates tissue locally which causes a generalized central nervous system response. Critics argue that spending time in a relaxing environment with a human sympathetic caregiver improves pain psychologically. Nevertheless, the study representatives determined that massage has few adverse effects and is a reasonable, alternative treatment for chronic low back pain. There is no evidence, however, that healthcare costs will be reduced by the use of massage.

Benefits of massage therapy

The American Massage Therapy Association reported many benefits of massage therapy. These include:

1) improved blood circulation which aids in recovery of muscle soreness from physical activity;
2) relaxation of muscles for improved range of motion and relief of insomnia; and
3) increased endorphin levels.

The question is not whether massage can really relieve low back pain, it is “can it relieve your low back pain.” Not everyone gets improvement with massage. Physical therapy doesn’t work for everyone. Medications help some while others are left to suffer from side effects that they find too unbearable to deal with. The response to treatment of various musculoskeletal conditions is now and always has been individualized. The treatments that are used to control symptoms in chronic ailments often have side effects and consequences. Each person must weigh the treatment along with its negatives against the illness with its perils. Finding the best relief is a personal choice.

  • Bakalar, N. (2011). The New York Times. Stubborn Back Pain? Try Massage. Retrieved from NY Times.
  • Cherkin, D.C and associates. (2011). A comparison of the effects of two types of massage and usual care of chronic low back pain. Retrieved from Annals.
  • National Institute on Neurological Disorders (2011). Low Back Pain Fact Sheet. Retrieved from Ninds Nih.
  • Photo courtesy of kruain on Flickr: