Massage: An option for chronic low back pain

Patient receiving a back massage

It doesn’t afflict only athletes, people with limited mobility, or those with significant injuries. Chronic low back pain affects millions of Americans every day. Fortunately, massage can be an effective choice for persistent or chronic back pain—maybe even yours.

Relief with massage therapy

Massage is one of many therapies that scientists at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute have studied to safely and effectively prevent and relieve back pain. Daniel C. Cherkin, PhD, now an emeritus senior investigator at KPWHRI, led the first study to compare two common types of massage for back pain. Dr. Cherkin and his team looked at relaxation (also called Swedish) massage, and structural (or deep tissue) massage, which focuses on specific pain-related areas such as muscles and ligaments. Dr. Cherkin and his team found that both types of massage worked well and had few side effects for the people in the study, who all had persistent low back pain. This finding was important because relaxation massage is more widely available and may be less expensive than structural massage.

Effective massage therapy leads to better function, productivity

A healthy back equals better function. When back pain isn’t stopping them, people are more able to work, take care of themselves, and be active. This means that employers have a stake in back health. 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. “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.”

Massage is just one of many options for back pain and you may need to try more than one. “As expected with most treatments, the benefits of massage declined over time,” Dr. Cherkin says. “Six months after our study started, both types of massage were still associated with improved function.” However, after one year, the benefits of massage were no longer significant. If massage doesn’t work for you or you feel its effects are no longer helping, try yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, and mindfulness-based stress reduction. Many studies, including from researchers at KPWHRI, show these are other effective ways to relieve back pain.

“We found the benefits of massage are about as strong as those reported for other effective treatments: medications, acupuncture, exercise, and yoga,” Dr. Cherkin 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.”

Get back in action

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 if you are among the majority of people without serious causes of your back pain, 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 or other simple but effective treatments can help you.

Learn more 

From Kaiser Permanente Washington 

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