Study: Massage May Worsen Chronic Pain

Depression Also Linked With Worsening Chronic Pain

Jan. 29, 2004 -- Massage is commonly used to treat chronic pain. Although it may help in the short term, its long-term effectiveness is less clear.

In fact, a new study shows that chronic pain could get worse after massage treatments, especially if the patient is depressed, writes lead researcher Dan Hasson, with Uppsala University in Sweden. His study appears in the current issue of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics.

Diffuse chronic pain is a common problem that is difficult to treat, writes Hasson. Studies of mental relaxation and massage have not been conclusive in determining which works best. Also, those studies have not shown whether patients get relief in the long term, he notes.

Massage vs. Mental Relaxation

The 129 patients in Hasson's study all had suffered from diffuse pain for at least three months. "Many of them suffered from depression and had several other diagnoses," he writes.

Half the patients got 30-minute massages -- once or twice a week -- during the five-week study period. The other patients were asked to listen to a mental relaxation tape twice a week.

"During treatment, there was a significant improvement in all three main outcome measures: self-rated health, mental energy, and muscle pain in the massage group," writes Hasson.

However, at the three-month follow-up, the massage group had deteriorated significantly -- reporting significantly worse pain. The relaxation tape group did not report changes in symptoms.

Those with increased muscle pain reported less mental energy and feelings relating to depressed moods.

Depression Leads to Worse Pain

His study supports the theory that depressive moods and lower mental energy are related to long-term worsening of chronic pain, writes Hasson.

The origins of chronic pain are more complex, possibly explaining why massage works best with injuries and other acute episodes, he says.

SOURCE: Hasson, D. Psychotherapy and Pschosomatics, January 2004: vol 73, pp 17-23.