Massage May Be Best Approach for Back Pain
"Millions of people use massage therapeutically, and there's not a lot of hard evidence that it works," Michael Hirt, MD, tells WebMD. "This is one of the few well-conducted studies that shows there's some significant benefit, and the benefit might be higher than for some other alternative therapies that we consider to be effective for pain, like acupuncture. ... Three out of four people who had massage therapy in this study showed benefit, and that's legions above the kind of benefits we see with physical therapy or medications."
Hirt is medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center in Los Angeles.
In his study, Cherkin randomly divided 262 people with persistent back pain into one of three groups. All the people were between 20 and 70 years old.
The first group was given acupuncture, the second self-care materials, and the third therapeutic massage. None of the patients had the kind of back pain associated with a serious disease, like a tumor, infection, or disk problem, and many were also taking medication for their back pain but were not satisfied with the pain control it offered.
"There's a whole variety of massage techniques," says Cherkin. "We studied those techniques that are most commonly taught in massage schools. That includes techniques like Swedish, deep tissue, and trigger point techniques."
After 10 weeks, the participants rated their back pain symptoms and the disability it caused. Those given massage therapy reported more improvement in their pain and disability compared to those treated with acupuncture or self-care. After one year of therapy, those given massage reported better results than the acupuncture group and similar results to the self-care group. Overall, those given massage used the least medication and had the lowest costs for subsequent care.
"There are treatments for back pain that extend beyond traditional Western medicine," says Hirt. "If you don't find help through traditional practices, there are now scientifically documented benefits for massage. You might even consider using massage therapy first-line because there aren't any side effects. ... Hopefully, by seeing these kinds of studies, insurance companies will step forward and pay for this kind of massage, seeing that it will actually reduce costs, reduce pain, and get people back to work sooner and with fewer side effects."
But massage isn't the only option for back pain.
Chiropractor Ralph Templeton, DC, agrees that massage therapy is important for fast relief of back pain but says that it does not get to the root of the problem. At his clinic, they use chiropractic manipulation and also offer other supportive care to alleviate discomfort while the back heals, including massage and medication. Templeton is chairman of the board of directors of the Georgia Chiropractic Association.