Validating what massage therapists and clients already know to be true, massage therapy was found to ease chronic low-back pain in a new, randomized controlled trial.

“We found that massage helps people with back pain to function even after six months,” said trial leader Daniel C. Cherkin, Ph.D., a senior investigator at Group Health Research Institute. Better function means they are more able to work, take care of themselves, and be active.

“This is important because chronic back pain is among the most common reasons people see doctors and alternative practitioners, including massage therapists,” Cherkin added. “It’s also a common cause of disability, absenteeism, and presenteeism, when people are at work but can’t perform well.”

The trial enrolled 400 Group Health Cooperative patients who had had low-back pain for at least three months. Their pain was nonspecific, meaning with no identified cause.

They were randomly assigned to one of three treatments: structural massage, which involved identifying and focusing on specific pain-related soft tissues, including muscles and ligaments; relaxation, or Swedish, massage; or usual care. Usual care was what they would have received anyway, most often medications. The hour-long massage sessions were given weekly for 10 weeks.

At 10 weeks, more than one in three patients who received either type of massage, but only one in 25 patients who got usual care, said their back pain was much better or gone.

Also at 10 weeks, a questionnaire showed nearly twice as many massage patients (around two thirds) as usual-care patients (more than one third) were functioning significantly better than at the trial’s outset.

Patients in the massage groups spent fewer days in bed, were more active, and used less anti-inflammatory medication than did those with usual care.

“We found the benefits of massage are about as strong as those reported for other effective treatments: medications, acupuncture, exercise, and yoga,” Cherkin said. “And massage is at least as safe as other treatment options. So people who have persistent back pain may want to consider massage as an option.”

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