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Timing Is Key to Massage's Benefits for Neck Pain

Two or three one-hour sessions a week reduced pain, improved functioning

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Many patients who get therapeutic massage for chronic neck pain may not reap benefits if they undergo shorter or less frequent sessions, the authors suggested.

Jeanette Ezzo, a massage therapist and researcher in Takoma Park, Md., called the study "an important contribution to understanding the massage dosage necessary to relieve neck pain." Ezzo has published research on the effectiveness of complementary medicine practices, including massage.

Nationwide, the average cost for a one-hour massage by a professional massage therapist is $65, according to the American Massage Therapy Association. However, in large cities the fee can be much higher.

Insurance coverage varies, said Sherman. Whether massage therapy would work in elderly patients isn't known as the average age of her patients was in the 40s.

Sherman cautioned against having a family member or friend attempt to massage away your neck pain. "We used extremely experienced massage therapists," she said. Treatment sessions also assessed range of motion and looked at how the patient's body compensated for the neck pain, which the average person is unable to do, she said.

Dr. Fredrick Wilson, a spine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, stressed the need to use a professional massage therapist. "If done incorrectly, [massage] can actually cause muscle tightening and spasm," he said.

For neck or back pain, "it seems the training and experience make a difference in the amount of pain relief patients get," he added.

However, Wilson said he is waiting for a study that shows longer-lasting effects before he recommends massage for patients complaining of neck pain. The authors agreed that studies with longer follow-up are warranted.

People with chronic neck pain might also ask their doctor about special neck exercises, Sherman said.

Neck pain accounts for more than 10 million medical visits a year in the United States, according to background information in the study. When patients were followed up one to five years later, at least half reported persistent or recurrent problems, previous studies found.

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