Many people swear by massage as means to reduce stress and relieve the aches and pains of everyday life, but a new study shows massage may also be an effective therapy for persistent low back pain.
Back problems are one of the most common reasons people use alternative and complimentary medical therapies, but little scientific research has evaluated the effectiveness of methods such as massage, acupuncture and self-care education. The study, published in the April 23 Archives of Internal Medicine, compared these three methods and found massage was the most effective in improving function and providing long-lasting benefits.
“It sort of puts massage on the map, not only as a popular therapy, but one for which there is scientific evidence,” says study author Dan Cherkin, PhD, acting director of the Group Health Cooperative’s Center for Health Studies in Seattle, Washington. “Massage was found to be an effective treatment for chronic back pain.”
The study divided 262 patients with persistent back pain into three groups that received either traditional Chinese medical acupuncture, therapeutic massage or self-care education materials. Up to 10 massage or acupuncture sessions were permitted over a 10-week treatment period. Patients were then asked about their symptoms in follow-up interviews at 4, 10 and 52 weeks after the treatment.
After the 10-week treatment, massage was rated better than both acupuncture and self-care in providing relief from painful symptoms and improving function.
“We found benefits of massage for both measures, but particularly noteworthy in terms of its effect on function, which is something one might think might be a bit harder to affect. Many other studies tend to find an effect on pain, rather than on function,” says Cherkin.
Cherkin says for many Americans, back pain is a problem for which medical treatments often don’t provide relief. “This seems like it would be an important finding for many Americans who are suffering from chronic back pain and have yet to find something that really is effective,” he adds.
Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institutes at the University of Miami School of Medicine, says the study is significant and backs up what her own research has shown. She says her previous research has found that deep tissue massage increases levels of an anti-pain chemical called serotonin in the body, which may explain the reduction in lower back pain.
“The common mechanism between acupuncture and massage therapy is probably the release of serotonin via the stimulation of deep pressure receptors,” says Field. Deep pressure receptors are located underneath the skin and are stimulated through vigorous massage or the use of targeted acupuncture needles. “When you do a superficial massage–that is lightly stroking–you don’t get these effects. It’s not the tactile receptors that are on the surface of the skin, but the pressure receptors that are beneath the skin.”
Field says exercise also stimulates these deep pressure receptors and explains why exercise elevates serotonin levels and provides pain relief for a number of problems. Vigorous brushing of the skin and use of mechanical massagers may also create the same effects.
Article By: Jennifer Warner, Medical Writer