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Study: Massage Helps Treat Low Back Pain

Researchers Say Massage Provides Pain Relief and Improves Daily Functioning

Stubborn Low Back Pain

Studies estimate that as many as 80% of adults will experience an episode of low back pain in their lifetimes.

In most cases, the pain will go away without any treatment in two to four weeks. About 14% of the time, however, low back pain lingers, sometimes without a readily identified cause.

Relatively few medical interventions have been proven to reliably help back pain, and it is considered to be one of the most overtreated ailments in American medicine.

"Over the last 15 years or so, there's been a steady increase in the use surgery, prescribing of opioids, in the use of injections in the use of spine imaging," Deyo says, "and overall, population-wide, it doesn't seem to have helped very much in reducing the impact of back problems."

That's why it's especially promising to find benefit in a noninvasive therapy like massage, he says.

The study found that the 10 treatments received by study participants would have cost about $540 in the community. Massage isn't typically covered by insurance.

The benefits appeared to persist for four months after the course of treatment was completed.

"I think it's true that wherever we can find alternatives that seem to be helpful, it's likely to be a useful thing for clinicians," Deyo says.

Studying Massage for Low Back Pain

Researchers recruited adults, mostly women, ages 20 to 65 who had visited the doctor at least once for their low back pain.

People were not included in the study if their back pain could be attributed to a specific cause like fractures, cancer or spinal stenosis, if they'd had surgery for their back problems in the last three years, or if they had an underlying medical condition like fibromyalgia or rheumatoid arthritis that would complicate pain treatment.

Study participants were randomly assigned to receive either Swedish massages for relaxation or a more targeted kind of "structural" massage that focused on specific muscle and connective tissue problems that might affect the low back.

"The treatment will go into the gluteal muscles and up in to the neck, but it's not a fully body massage and it tends to be focused with the goal of treating the effected tissues," says Cherkin. "A full-body relaxation massage is more or less full-body and it doesn't focus on the back. It's intended to maximize relaxation."

A third group was told they were participating in a trial of massage therapy, but they were assigned to usual care.

Massage therapists all had at least five years of experience, and some had additional, specialized training to provide the focused, structural massage technique.

Study participants received their massages for free. People in the usual care group were paid $50 for their participation.

All study participants were followed for one year.

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