Massage More Effective Than Usual Care for Treating Chronic Low Back Pain

Philadelphia, July 5, 2011 -- Low back pain is one of the most common reasons patients see a physician. Massage therapy is frequently used as an alternative treatment for chronic low back pain, but there is limited evidence as to its effectiveness. According to a new study, massage may be more effective than usual medical interventions for improving pain and function in patients with chronic low back pain.

Researchers studied 401 patients aged 20 to 65 years with nonspecific chronic low back pain to compare the effectiveness of either relaxation or structural massage versus usual care. Patients were surveyed about their symptoms and ability to perform daily activities and then randomly assigned to receive relaxation massage, structure massage (a massage focused on correcting soft-tissue abnormalities), or usual treatment with no massage.

Participants in the massage groups had a one-hour massage once a week for 10 weeks, while patients in the usual care group received therapy such as painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants, or physical therapy. After 10 weeks, the researchers re-measured the participants' symptoms and mobility, and then re-measured again at six months and one year. They found that patients in both of the massage groups fared much better than those receiving usual care.

"We found that patients receiving massage were twice as likely as those receiving usual care to report significant improvements in both their pain and function," said Dr. Daniel Cherkin, Director of Group Health Research Institute and lead author of the study. "After 10 weeks, about two-thirds of those receiving massage improved substantially, versus only about one-third in the usual care group."

In addition to improvements in pain and mobility, patients also reported a reduction in the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications after massage.

While both relaxation and structural massage provided relief and restored function, the researchers suggest that relaxation massage may have a slight advantage over structural massage because it is taught in almost all massage schools, making it more readily accessible and slightly less expensive than structural or other specialized forms of massage.

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