Back Pain And Massage Therapy. The Pros And Cons

Back pain is one of the most common reasons to visit a doctor. In many cases, the back pain resolves within weeks. However, it also becomes chronic in some individuals. Chronic pain interferes with day-to-day life and is associated with anxiety, depression, dependence on opioids, and overall poor quality of life.  

Many people consider massage therapy to manage back pain. But are massages good for back pain? Can massage help everyone? Can massage make back pain worse? Let’s look at the pros and cons of massage therapy for back pain in more detail. 

Massage  is an ancient therapy

Massage therapy is far from being just a modern trend. It is one of the oldest therapies ever created. The history of massage therapy goes back to at least 3000 BCE  in India, where it was used to heal injuries, alleviate pain and cure various illnesses along with diet, herbs, and other practices. Ancient Greek and Romans were also using massage for its therapeutic effects. In 1800, Swedish Dr.Per Henrik Ling created a special method to manage chronic pain.  Over the years, this method was refined, as it is now known as the Swedish massage. It involves pressing, stroking, squeezing, and striking.  

In the US, massage therapy had been used since early 1700. Women called “rubbers” were hired by doctors to treat musculoskeletal conditions with manual rubbing and friction. By the 1800s, these therapies became popular, being used along with hydrotherapy (or water therapy). There are many forms of massage and modalities used by modern massage therapists. 

 Are massages good for back pain? 

Perhaps your healthcare provider recommended massage therapy.  You may have health insurance coverage for massage and wonder if you could use it for back pain. Is it worth trying it, does it help? 

Massage therapy can help manage low back pain in several ways. It improves blood and lymphatic circulation, reduces muscle tension and inflammation, and promotes quicker healing. Massage therapy may also improve range of motion and help prevent future injuries to the low back. This therapy is relaxing mentally as well, as it promotes the release of endorphins. All these benefits lead to a better sleep quality, which further supports faster recovery. 

Studies found that massage therapy is a great tool for various conditions associated with pain: low back pain, neck pain, arthritis-related knee pain, pelvic pain, hand pain associated with carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, labor pain,  pain caused by sports injuries, and cancer-related pain. Beyond helping manage pain, massage therapy is beneficial for those with heart disease and high blood pressure, various autoimmune diseases, and brain degenerative conditions. 

Based on a 2002 review of multiple research studies, massage might be beneficial for those with low back pain (subacute and chronic nonspecific low back pain), especially when combined with an exercise program and education.  

How does massage therapy compare with no treatment at all or other modalities? According to research, massage works better than an inert treatment, may have more benefits than acupuncture, comparable efficacy with exercise and corsets, but is less effective than manipulation or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). 

Can massage make back pain worse?

While many people experience pain relief from massage and research studies support the benefits of this therapy, other people don’t. They either don’t feel any improvement or the pain may actually get worse. Why is that? 

For best results, get a massage for an experienced, registered massage therapist rather than your partner. Registered therapists have in-depth training and knowledge on the best ways to manage back pain in a safe way. 

Always tell the therapist if you are feeling uncomfortable or the pain is getting worse during the massage session. 

Some people are more sensitive to pain than others. Some may have higher levels of inflammation in the body than others. In both cases, a  deep tissue massage may hurt and aggravate the pain, but they could benefit from light pressure massage. 

Some research suggests that chronic low back pain is more complex than previously thought and different cases will require different treatment approaches. One study suggests that individuals who have depression may feel the back pain aggravated after massage. The study compared the benefits of massage versus mental relaxation in 129 participants with chronic low back pain. Many of them also suffered from depression. One group received a 30-minute massage once or twice weekly. The second group listened to a mental relaxation tape two times a week. During the five-week treatment, those who received massage experienced significant improvement in muscle pain, mental energy, and self-rated health. However, three months later, during a follow-up, the massage group reported their pain got significantly worse. The worsening of muscle pain was also associated with a depressed mood. On the other hand, those who listened to the relaxation tape did not feel aggravation of the symptoms.