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Massage for Back Pain

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Updated June 18, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

For people looking to soothe low back pain — the most common type of pain in the United States — massage therapy may offer some relief. In addition to easing pain and reducing disability, massage therapy is thought to accelerate recovery from low back pain.

How Does Massage Treat Back Pain?

By kneading, rubbing, and manipulating muscles and tissues, massage therapists aim to promote healing and relaxation. Although scientists aren't sure just how massage therapy might help alleviate low back pain, it's thought that massage may thwart pain signals sent to the brain, stimulate the brain's release of pain-reducing chemicals, and/or bring about beneficial changes in the body.

Health Benefits of Massage For Back Pain

Although research on massage therapy's effectiveness in treatment of back pain is somewhat limited, a number of studies have yielded positive findings. In a research review published in 2009, for instance, scientists sized up 13 clinical trials and found that massage might benefit patients with low back pain (especially when the therapy is used in combination with exercises and education). The review's authors found that the beneficial effects of massage lasted at least one year after treatment had ended.

To date, few studies have looked at specific types of massage therapy in treatment of low back pain. However, two studies included in the 2009 review did compare two different massage techniques: One study found that acupuncture massage (which targets certain acupuncture points on the body) produced better results than Swedish massage, while the other showed that Thai massage produced similar results to Swedish massage.

Trying Massage Therapy

In clinical practice guidelines developed by the American Pain Society and the American College of Physicians, massage therapy is listed as one of the complementary and alternative therapies to consider when chronic low back pain fails to respond to conventional treatment.

If you're considering the use of massage therapy in treatment of low back pain, talk to your doctor about how to integrate massage therapy into your treatment program. Since patients with low back pain often benefit from additional therapies and lifestyle changes, self-treating your pain is not recommended. Your doctor may also be able to help you determine which type of massage therapy is best suited to your needs.

Sources

American Pain Foundation. Pain Facts & Figures. July 2009.

Furlan AD, Imamura M, Dryden T, Irvin E. "Massage for low back pain: an updated systematic review within the framework of the Cochrane Back Review Group." Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2009 15;34(16):1669-84.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "Massage Therapy: An Introduction". NCCAM Publication No. D327. Updated June 2009.

National Institutes of Health. "Back Pain: MedlinePlus". April 2010.

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