For chronic low-back pain, massage therapy seems to be more effective than medications, physical therapy, education and exercise. These findings—from a randomized controlled trial conducted by researchers at the Group Health Research Institute; the University of Washington, Seattle; the Oregon Health & Science University, Portland; and the University of Vermont, Burlington—were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (2011; 155 , 1–9). The study’s purpose was to compare the short-term and long-term effects of structural massage, relaxation massage and usual care for people with chronic low-back pain.
Investigators randomly assigned 401 people who had been experiencing nonspecific chronic low-back pain for at least 3 months to one of three groups: structural massage, relaxation massage or usual care. Structural massage focuses on specific pain-related soft tissue. Relaxation massage (e.g., Swedish massage) promotes overall relaxation through long strokes, kneading, circular movements or vibration. Usual medical care consists of medication, physical therapy, back exercises and education. Massage subjects received a 1-hour massage once per week for 10 weeks. All participants were assessed for symptoms, medication use and functional ability at the end of 10 weeks and again after 6 months and 1 year.
Data analysis showed that patients in both massage groups spent fewer days in bed, were more active and used less anti-inflammatory medication than those who received usual care. After 10 weeks, function had significantly improved in twice as many massage patients as usual-care patients. Lead study author, Daniel C. Cherkin, PhD, senior investigator at Group Health Research Institute, said, “We found that massage helps people with back pain to function even after 6 months. As expected with most treatments, the benefits of massage declined over time.” After 1 year, massage benefits were no longer significant.
Cherkin and colleagues advised doing further research to determine why massage therapy is so effective and why both structural and relaxation massage are equally effective.