A new study reinforced what physical therapists have long suspected: Massage, when coupled with traditional medical treatment, provides significant relief from chronic back pain.
That's good news for the 70 to 85 percent of Americans who experience back pain at some time. It's the most frequent cause of limited activity in people under 45, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Findings of the study, conducted by Seattle's Group Health Research Institute, were published recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine. They suggest that massage therapy provided greater back-pain relief than conventional approaches alone. Massage recipients spent fewer days in bed, were more active and took fewer medications. Research suggests massage stimulates injured tissue and calms the central nervous system.
Nobuku Anderson, 68, was among the 400 members of Seattle's Group Health Cooperative whose persistent back pain led them to participate in the study.
For decades, she'd kept back pain at bay with regular exercise, sporadic massage and trips to the chiropractor. She also occasionally took aspirin. When she tried to carry a case of wine into her three-story townhouse one day in 2006, the pain seized her almost immediately. Collapsing to the floor, crying, she inched toward the phone — and reached it four hours later to call for help.
"I knew I should not have tried lifting that," Anderson said of the 40-pound box — more than a third of her weight.
In the emergency room, a syringe provided pharmaceutical-grade relief. She recuperated, but never fully. The pain was still there. Anderson was paired with a physical therapist, who in 2008 suggested she join the institute's clinical trial. She would continue regular treatment with a bonus: a weekly, hour-long massage.
The 10-week trial was for those with chronic back pain that had no identifiable cause. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three treatments: pressure-point massage, relaxation massage or usual care — what they would have received anyway, most often medication.
Anderson was assigned to the relaxation-massage group.
"Almost immediately, it felt better and (relief) lasted a couple of days" she said, adding that subsequent massages offered longer relief.
At 10 weeks, more than one in three patients who received massages said their back pain had lessened or ceased. By comparison, one in 25 patients who got usual care reported improvements.
"For people who've tried more conventional treatment with no results, massage is a reasonable thing to try," said Daniel Cherkin, the study's leader and an investigator at the institute.
Its research has shown that massage is as effective in relieving chronic back pain as other treatments such as yoga, exercise and medication.
The study also found that after six months, massage recipients still reported pain relief. After one year, reported benefits were no longer significant.
The one surprising finding: Both massage types were found to be equally effective. Pressure-point massage, which targets injured ligaments and muscle, is often more expensive. The more common relaxation massage promotes relaxation throughout the body.
One in six American adults had a massage last year — 25 million more Americans than 10 years ago, according to an annual survey by American Massage Therapy Association.