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Study: Massage Helps Treat Low Back Pain

Researchers Say Massage Provides Pain Relief and Improves Daily Functioning
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The study was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. It's published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

"I think this trial is good news in the sense that it suggests that massage is a useful option that helps some substantial fraction of these patients," says study researcher Richard A. Deyo, MD, a professor in the department of family medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

"Like in most other treatments, this is not a slam dunk, and it's not like a cure," Deyo tells WebMD, "But it's something that seems to offer a significant benefit for a substantial number of patients."

Modest, Short-Term Help

Experts who were not involved in the study agree.

Roger Chou, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, helped to write the 2009 American Pain Society guidelines for treating low back pain.

He says massage was recommended in those clinical practice guidelines, though the authors noted that the recommendation was based on a small number of studies and the benefits were likely to be modest.

"I think the study is quite consistent with what we have in our guideline, and it adds to the evidence that's out there," Chou says. "It strengthens the case to consider massage as one of the potential treatment options for chronic low back pain."

But Chou, and others, including the study's researchers, say exercise is likely to offer far greater benefits than massage for people who've been struggling with back pain for a long time, and they stress that people shouldn't assume that massage alone will banish low back pain for good.

"Certainly, it's not going to hurt," says Fredrick P. Wilson, DO, director of the Cleveland Clinic Solon Center for Spine Health, in Ohio.

"But it's a short-term improvement, and it's certainly not a fix," says Wilson, who reviewed the study for WebMD but was not involved in the research.

Wilson says he would have liked to have seen more objective measures of function included in the study, like spinal range of motion assessed by investigators, rather than just relying on self-reports from study participants.

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