A recent peer-reviewed study shows both massage therapy and acupuncture may help relieve neuropathic pain associated with a spinal cord injury.

The study, “Acupuncture and massage therapy for neuropathic pain following spinal cord injury: an exploratory study,” involved 30 people who had suffered a spinal cord injury more than two years ago and had been diagnosed with neuropathic pain.

The first 15 people to meet these inclusion criteria were assigned to the acupuncture group, and the next 15 were assigned to the massage group. The acupuncture group consisted of 12 males and three females. The mean age of the acupuncture subjects was about 47 years, and the mean time since the spinal cord injury was about 12 years.

In the massage group, there were 13 males and three females. The mean age of the massage subjects was about 50 years, and the mean time since the spinal cord injury was about 13 years.

Five people in the acupuncture group and six in the massage group had tetraplegia. Ten acupuncture subjects and eight massage subjects were on pain medication.

For both groups, the intervention took place twice a week for six weeks. Baseline measures were taken before the start of the study, and outcome measures were evaluated at the end of the six weeks and again after two months.

These measures included individual ratings of present pain intensity, as well as worst pain intensity and pain unpleasantness in the past week. Subjects rated the all-around pain-relieving effect of their assigned intervention at the end of the intervention period and again after two months, using the Patient Global Impression of Change Scale.

Anxiety, pain, sleep, quality of life, spasticity and the psychosocial consequences of pain were among the secondary outcome measures assessed in this study.

Acupuncture points were selected based on each participant and his or her injury and individual neuropathic pain. About 13 to 15 points were used in each session. Needles were placed in areas of preserved sensation where pain was present, as well as in strong general acupuncture points.

In the massage group, light and nonpainful effleurage and petrissage techniques were used on individual areas of pain and preserved sensation. Subjects were on a massage table during each session.

“It was important that the massage did not cause discomfort for the individuals and, therefore, stimulation in areas with allodynia [Pain from stimuli that aren’t usually painful, or that refers to an area other than the one being stimulated] or unpleasant feelings from touch were avoided,” state the study’s authors.

At the end of the intervention period, researchers found that eight of the 15 people in the acupuncture group and nine of those who received massage reported a significant improvement on the Patient Global Impression of Change Scale. After two months, the improvement was still present in six of the acupuncture subjects and one of the massage recipients.

“Neuropathic pain following [spinal cord injury] is a condition unresponsive to many interventions,” state the study’s authors. “Results from this study indicate that both acupuncture and massage therapy may relieve [spinal cord injury] neuropathic pain, and for this reason larger randomized controlled trials are warranted for assessing the long-term effects of these treatments.”

Authors: Cecilia Norrbrink and Thomas Lundeberg.

Sources: Department of Clinical Sciences, Karolinska Institutet, Danderyd Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden; Neuro-Spinal Division, Department of Physical Therapy, Karolinska University Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden; and Foundation for Acupuncture and Alternative Biological Treatment Methods, Sabbatsbergs Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden. Originally published in Acupuncture in Medicine (2011).