Massage therapy reduced pain, anxiety and sleep disturbances and improved mood in individuals with lower-back pain, in a recent study.
Back pain is one of the most frequent causes of work absenteeism. Psychological variables, such as depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, distress and cognitive functioning, can influence the pain experience.

A study conducted in 2001 compared the effects of massage therapy and relaxation therapy on lower-back pain, trunk and pain flexion. Massage therapy improved these areas and decreased pain, depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances in participants.

However, a newer study, titled “Lower back pain and sleep disturbance are reduced following massage therapy,” examined the effects of massage therapy and relaxation therapy for reducing chronic low-back pain, depression, anxiety and sleep disturbance, as well as improving range of motion (ROM), reducing job absenteeism and increasing productivity—topics not assessed in the earlier study.

Thirty adults (16 males and 14 females) with low-back pain for at least six months participated in the randomized study. Participants with back pain due to herniated or degenerated discs, fractured vertebrae or sciatic nerve involvement, as well as those who had surgery because of their back pain or had legal action pending, were excluded from the study.

The selected participants were randomly assigned to a massage- therapy or relaxation-therapy group. During a five-week period, the massage group received two 30-minute massages per week by trained massage therapists. The relaxation-therapy group was shown how to use muscle relaxation exercises and asked to perform these exercises in 30-minute sessions twice a week at home during those same five weeks.

Participants in the relaxation group were monitored with weekly calls and were required to record when they performed the therapy.
Measures were used to assess stress, pain and ROM before and after sessions on the first and last days of the study. Sleep disturbance, job productivity and absenteeism were also assessed on the first and last day of the study.

Massage participants reported a less-depressed mood, were less anxious and reported a decrease in pain. The massage group also experienced an immediate increase in the measures of trunk flexion with and without pain after therapy sessions, as well as a decrease in sleep disturbances by the end of the study.

However, this study showed that massage therapy did not affect job productivity or absenteeism for people with chronic low-back problems.
Researchers concluded massage therapy is more effective than relaxation therapy for reducing pain, anxiety and sleep disturbances and improving mood in individuals with lower-back pain. They suggest a future study be conducted to physically monitor the participants in the relaxation therapy group; to conduct a long-term, follow-up assessment; and to include a larger sample size.

Source: Touch Research Institutes, University of Miami School of Medicine, Miami, Fla.; Fielding Graduate University; and BIOTONE.
Authors: Tiffany Field, Maria Hernandez-Reif, Miguel Diego and Monica Fraser. Originally published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies (2007) 11, 141–145.