Can massage really relieve chronic back pain? 


You may be saying - well or course it can, which was my first response. But it's nice to be aware of a new study that was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine that clearly shows that: “Massage therapy may be effective for treatment of chronic back pain, with benefits lasting at least 6 months.” As you read the study itself, you see that massage is not just a "may be effective", but is definitely the winner in this contest. This is also not the first study to confirm massage is effective for relief of back pain - see here.

Back pain is, as you probably personally have experienced it, quite common and chronic back pain is an epidemic. Finding the reason for one person’s back pain versus another person’s back pain keeps radiologists and physical therapists busy. And if you’re like me, you may have 2 or 3 different reasons and 2 or 3 different areas in your back where you have chronic and often debilitating pain. My husband has had back surgery and has been told he needs more back surgery – that was over 5 years ago and we haven’t been back (pun not intended). Let’s just say that our family has a lot of back pain.

What’s the usual treatment?

If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written you probably know that I don’t like taking or giving medications,  either prescribed or over-the-counter.  Unfortunately, the common treatment for all types of back pain is usually prescription pain killers for the rest of your life (many of which are very addictive),  muscle relaxants that make you a zombie for 24+ hours, and/or over-the-counter NSAID’s, which have their own history of reasons not to take them on a chronic basis. More and more insurance companies are paying for chiropractic treatment – which is good and that does have a history of success.  Now, this study may give more reason for your insurance company to also cover massage therapy treatment. They pay for physical therapy – why not massage therapy? I think some do. I try not to consider or think about the impending healthcare reform.

What did this study prove?

In the Annals of Medicine, the new study looked at 401 people with chronic back pain. They also looked at 2 different types of massage which are routinely offered for low-back pain relief. Now, I’m not a massage therapist, and I’ve only had one paid-for massage in my life time (which was amazing), but apparently one type is relaxation which relaxes the targeted muscles and the other type is structural aimed to release tension in “specific tissues and joint structures.” My friendly massage therapists, please comment and let us know more about this. This study looked at both of those types of massage as well as what they referred to as “usual care” – as mentioned above.  The researchers were attempting to determine short-term and long-term effects of these 3 methods.

The study found that after 10 weeks those who received massage therapy, with one type not being any better than the other, was more successful in relieving pain, as well as improving daily functioning, than those who received the “usual” care! The massage therapy led to “more rapid improvement” in low back pain than the usual medical care. Now that’s very cool!  And to top that – the massage therapy pain relief lasted for at least 6 months and perhaps longer.

What about aromatherapy?

Well,no the study didn’t use any aromatherapy and that’s probably good because it would have just muddied the waters. But aromatherapy added to massage could and would make a huge contribution to pain relief. I say this because I have many testimonials, personal and public, that aromatherapy blends have worked very well on people with just rubbing the oil treatment into a painful area. There is also a wealth of research and anecdotal information proclaiming the ability for essential oils to absorb into the affected area and bring pain relief.  Some of the most used for muscle, bone or nerve pain relief would be ginger, plai, nutmeg, helichrysum, and black pepper.

What else is important about this study?

Let me say, first of all, the fact that a study was even done regarding the benefits of massage therapy versus pharmaceutical drugs  is a major advancement. Drug companies obviously have no profit incentive for discovering that an alternative (also referred to as complementary) treatment works better than their high-priced, prescription-required medications.  This study was, in fact, a randomized, controlled trial, which is one of the types of studies the medical establishment requires in order to be even tentatively considered valid. Additionally, the proven fact that probably all medical studies done in the past 50 years are flawed due to financial conflicts is still being shoved under the rug. Even as far back as May 2000, our friend (not personally, of course, just that we appreciate all the drug-free information he disseminates on a daily basis through his website), revealed several instances of blatant conflicts of interest – read here.  

Then in 2004, and the one that truly amazes me (and I don’t amaze easily when it comes to the deplorable practices of Big Pharma) was revealed by a New York Times article that a certain doctor was given the option to buy 72,000 shares of a particular pharmaceutical company's stock for a mere $25.00 after declaring one of their drugs was effective while another company's drug was not.  Both probably were not, but that’s another discussion for another day. Those shares would have been worth – and this is the truth – more than $1 million! Read here. 

Another indictment came through one of my favorite magazines, Science Daily, when they wrote an expose in 2008 with an article entitled “Big Pharma Spends More On Advertising Than Research And Development, Study Finds”. The study was done by two York University researchers and they found that the U.S. pharmaceutical industry “spends twice as much on promotion as it does on research and development, contrary to the industry’s claim.” it’s a good read – here. And, of course, although some things have changed in that the physician/scientist presenting a “paper” must disclose “financial conflicts”, the practice blatantly continues.

What's that got to do with massage?!

What’s the point of reiterating what most of us already know about Big Pharma? It is to highlight the fact that alternative/complementary medicine has only recently begun doing research studies such as the one discussed here. By recently, I mean in the last decade. So, when your doctor asks you why you want to have a massage instead of a prescription for the highly addictive Percocet, you can send him a copy of this study. There are many ways and means that alternative medicine accomplishes health and wellness more quickly, and cheaply, with less or probably no side effects – and you don’t have to walk through your doctor’s door to use them. They may not have a placebo-controlled, double blind study to prove an alternative treament such as using elderberry tincture to prevent the flu – they ONLY have centuries of successful use. Do you really think Grandma would tell you that elderberry tincture is great for keeping the flu away if it hadn’t worked for her – of course not! Many Grandma’s later, we are still finding that to be true. No, Big Pharma will not do a study to prove this, though it has been easily proven. They would much rather take it to their lab and recreate a synthetic patentable representation that they would sell for a ridiculous amount of money and because it’s not a true synergy from nature, there will always be side effects. If there’s one thing the pharmaceutical industry has proven to us is that ALL synthetic medications have 2 to 3 pages worth of documented side effects.

For further reading, please see links below.

Thanks for listening!

Group Health Research Institute (2011, July 5). Massage eases low back pain in randomized controlled trial. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 14, 2011.

SOURCES: Daniel Cherkin, Ph.D., director, Group Health Research Institute, Seattle; Robert Duarte, M.D., director, Pain and Headache Treatment Center, North Shore-LIJ Health System, Manhasset, N.Y.; July 5, 2011, Annals of Internal Medicine