Encouraging Health and Happiness

Massages really can make the pain go away, study finds

A new study reinforced what physical therapist have long suspected: Massage, when coupled with traditional medical treatment, provides significant relief from chronic back pain. The 400-person study was conducted by Seattle’s Group Health Research Institute.

When Nobuku Anderson walked into her home, she knew something was wrong. She had pushed her luck trying to carry the wine case purchased earlier that day. Almost immediately, pain seized her. Collapsing to the floor, crying, she inched toward the phone.

This was the first time in the decades she has been managing her back pain — the result of years of tennis, golf and “the crazy high heels you wear when you’re young” — that she couldn’t move.

Until then, she kept the pain at bay with regular exercise, the sporadic massage, and trips to the chiropractor. She also took aspirin, but those instances were rare. This afternoon was different. It took four hours, but Anderson made it to a phone and called for help.

Her situation is not uncommon; 70 to 85 percent of Americans experience back pain at some time in their lives, and it is the most frequent cause of limited activity in people under 45, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Anderson is one the 400 members of Seattle’s Group Health Cooperative whose persistent back pain was included in a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on Monday. The findings suggest that massage therapy provided greater relief of back pain when compared to conventional approaches alone. Massage recipients spent fewer days in bed, were more active and took fewer medications. Research suggests massage stimulates injured tissue and calms the central nervous system.

“I knew I should not have tried lifting that,” Anderson, 68, said of the 40-pound box more than a third of her weight. Since that incident in 2006, she keeps heat therapy packs strategically scattered throughout her three-story town house. “It taught me to be prepared.”

In the emergency room, a syringe provided pharmaceutical-grade relief. She still winces at the idea of prescription medication.

She recuperated, but never fully. The pain was still there. Anderson was paired with a physical therapist, who in 2008 suggested she join the clinical trial conducted by the Group Health Research Institute. She would continue regular treatment with an added bonus: A weekly, hourlong massage.

The 10-week trial was for those with chronic back pain that had no identifiable cause. The participants were randomly assigned to one of three treatments: pressure-point massage, relaxation massage or usual care — what they would have received anyway, most often medication.

Anderson was assigned to the relaxation massage group.

“Almost immediately, it felt better and lasted a couple of days” she said, adding that subsequent massages offered longer relief.

And she wasn’t alone. At 10 weeks, more than one in three patients who received massages said their back pain had lessened or ceased. By comparison, one in 25 patients who got usual care reported improvements.

“For people who’ve tried more conventional treatment with no results, massage is a reasonable thing to try,” said Daniel Cherkin, leader of the study and an investigator at Group Health Research Institute, whose research has shown that massage is as effective in relieving chronic back pain as other treatments such as yoga, exercise and medication.

The study also found that after six months massage recipients still reported pain relief. After one year, reported benefits were no longer significant.

The one surprising finding was that both massage types were found to be equally effective. Pressure-point massage, which targets injured ligaments and muscle, is often more expensive and requires additional training, while relaxation massage, the most common form of massage, focuses on promoting a feeling of relaxation throughout the body.

One in six American adults had a massage in the past year — 25 million more Americans than 10 years ago, according to an annual survey by American Massage Therapy Association.


By Roberto Daza

Seattle Times staff reporter


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