Massage therapy has become an increasingly popular treatment for back pain. But is massage merely a short-term “feel good” remedy or does it actually help your back?
Let’s start by remembering that most back pain begins with problems in the musculoskeletal system such as muscle imbalances and trigger points. Since massage works directly on your muscles and connective tissue (myofascia), it can be a help. How much depends largely on the type of massage and experience of the practitioner.
People get a massage for many reasons. Some might try massage first for back pain relief after an accident. Others might include it as part of a spa day to pamper themselves. Either way, massage provides a number of health benefits.
Massage aids in the removal of toxins from muscle tissue. It also enhances blood flow which accelerates the flushing of these waste materials out of your body. This will help alleviate muscle soreness from this waste product buildup.
Studies show massage carries a number of other benefits as well. Its believed to boost the immune system, reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and even help migraines. Some experts believe massage promotes the release of “feel good” endorphins which increase your body’s tolerance for pain too.
The scientific literature supports massage as an effective way to both decrease pain and increase mobility as well. For example, a 2003 review of studies on the effectiveness of massage for treating back pain was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The review found massage to be clearly effective for persistent back pain and the authors suggested it might even reduce the overall costs of care after an initial course of therapy.
Types of Massage
There are over 80 unique forms of massage recognized by the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Some of the most effective massage techniques for back pain fall into one of these categories:
Swedish massage: This is the most common massage used in the United States. Generally soothing, it involves the use of kneading and friction in long strokes and deep circular movements. Most well-known massage techniques fall under the heading of Swedish massage. While popular and feels good, this category of massage techniques would not be one of the most effective for back pain though it may help.
Myofascial therapy: Targeting the muscles and fascia (connective tissue surrounding your muscles), myofascial therapy promotes flexibility and mobility. This type of massage comes in two general forms, indirect and direct. Indirect myofascial massage uses a light pressure to gently release tension in the fascia. Direct myofascial massage techniques, particularly Deep Tissue massage and Rolfing, uses intense pressure from the masseur’s knuckles, elbows, or other tools to directly release bound fascia.
Trigger Point therapy: Since trigger points are the primary cause of pain as much as 75% of the time and contribute to virtually all pain, massage focused on relieving the tiny knotted muscle fibers deep in your muscle is a particularly effective method of addressing back pain. These tiny knots are painful and tender when pressed and can refer pain far from their source. By placing deep, direct pressure on these trigger points it can break the cycle of pain caused by the knotted muscle. We’ve found that when done properly, trigger point therapy is one of the most effective of all massage techniques for treating back pain.
The Downside of Massage
Massage is a safe form of treatment and usually leaves you feeling great afterwards. So what’s the downside? For many people, it’s either the cost or the difficulty in finding a good masseuse who knows how to use the best information available on back pain to your benefit.
Finding a massage practitioner who understands and can properly eliminate trigger points would be our first suggestion. Unfortunately, not all massage therapists have a strong background in this area. Even fewer have an understanding of muscle imbalances and how to use massage to help loosen muscle constrictions from overly tight muscles. And if you do find that rare breed of massage therapist who knows both, the cost may be too expensive to go as frequently as you desire.
Cherkin C, et al. A Review of the Evidence for the Effectiveness, Safety, and Cost of Acupuncture, Massage Therapy, and Spinal Manipulation for Back Pain. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2003 3 Jun; Volume 138; No. 11.