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Massage Therapy Compared to Medical Care for Chronic Back Pain

The Annals of Internal Medicine published a study investigating massage therapy compared to medical care for chronic back Pain.  Low back pain can affect up to 80% of the population. When a doctor treats low back pain, the main goal is to decrease the pain and help the individual return to their usual activities. Those with low back pain may be confused by the different treatments that are offered by different medical specialist. Doctors of chiropractic, medical doctors, physical therapist, and massage therapists have different tools to address back pain.

Massage Therapy Compared to Medical Care for Chronic Back Pain

Usual Medical Care for Back Pain

The medical researchers in this study compared “usual medical treatment” to massage therapy for back pain lasting for more than three months in 401 individuals. For purposes of the study, they defined usual medical care as pain killers, anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants, back exercises, and education about ways to deal with the current back pain and prevent future back pain.

First, the researchers measured the participants’ symptoms and the effect of their back pain upon their daily activities. The participants were randomly assigned to the “massage group” or the “usual medical treatment group”. Those in the massage group received a one-hour massage once a week for 10 weeks. The effects were measured after 10 weeks, 6 months, and 12 months.

Massage vs. Medical Care for Back Pain

The researchers discovered that those with low back pain who received massage therapy had less pain and were better able to perform daily activities than those treated with “usual medical care.” Both pain and performance were still improved for those receiving massage at six months and at 12 months.  After 12 months, those in the usual medical care group were doing just as well as those who had received massage therapy.

In summary, those receiving massage for chronic low back pain enjoyed more rapid improvement in their pain and daily function than those receiving “usual medical care”. It is important to acknowledge that there is no cookie-cutter approach for a health professional applying treatment to a back pain. Each chronic back pain syndrome is unique, and should be thoroughly evaluated before treatments are recommended.

Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Kahn J, Wellman R, Cook AJ, Johnson E, Erro J, Delaney K, Deyo RA. A comparison of the effects of 2 types of massage and usual care on chronic low back pain: a randomized, controlled trial. Ann Intern Med. 2011 Jul 5;155(1):1-9.

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