Low back pain is among the most common reasons why people seek medical care. Very often that care consists of strong pain medication to relieve symptoms while they rest for a few days or weeks and recover. When patients suffer with chronic back pain, however, those months of pain medicine can cause problems of its own and doesn't really do anything to hasten recovery. New research indicates that massage therapy may be a more effective treatment for chronic back pain.

Research conducted by the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle divided 401 chronic low back pain patients into three groups—two groups for massage and one control group who received standard medical care. Among the two massage groups, one group of patients received weekly relaxation massages and the other received weekly structural massages. Each group received one-hour massages for ten weeks.

When the ten weeks were finished, one in three patients in each massage group said their back pain was better, but only one in 25 of those receiving standard care experienced the same relief. The massage patients also reported better physical function, fewer days in bed, and decreased use of anti-inflammatory medications. 

The pain-relieving results of massage were found to last up to six months after treatment ended, though at one year, results were on par with pain levels reported by patients who received standard treatment. This may be because many cases of low back pain are caused by structural problems. Massage may help relax the muscles around that structural anomaly and therefore reduce pain, but unless the problem is repaired, the pain may come back.

Does this prove that massage provides therapeutic relief for low back pain? Not necessarily.  Researchers said there might be some placebo effect at play here, but it does provide physicians with another tool for treating a very challenging condition. It may prove especially beneficial for patients who are reluctant to use pain medications, injections or have surgery. 

There are hundreds of different types of massage. Of the two types included in this study, structural massage focused on soft tissue abnormalities while relaxation massage focused on promoting total-body relaxation. The ability to relax when dealing with pain combined with knowledge that you're receiving care specifically to treat pain may be part of the healing effect these study participants received. In contrast, those patients who received standard care (medication and rest), may have reported more pain simply because they felt left out. 

If you're living with chronic back pain, find out if your insurance provider covers massage therapy. Then, ask your doctor if massage therapy might be right for you. Since none of the study participants reported any adverse or painful effects from their massages, getting a massage to help your aching back certainly couldn't hurt. In fact, it could be the healing touch that finally sets your back pain packing.


Annals of Internal Medicine

July 5, 2011 vol. 155 no. 1 1-9

A Comparison of the Effects of 2 Types of Massage and Usual Care on Chronic Low Back Pain

A Randomized, Controlled Trial

Daniel C. Cherkin, PhD; Karen J. Sherman, PhD, MPH; Janet Kahn, PhD; Robert Wellman, MS; Andrea J. Cook, PhD; Eric Johnson, MS; Janet Erro, RN, MN; Kristin Delaney, MPH; and Richard A. Deyo, MD, MPH

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Low Back Pain Fact Sheet