Can Massage Help Your Back Problem?

Can Massage Help Your Back Problem?

For most of us, the answer is probably 'yes', since massage is non-invasive and considered very low risk for most people. In addition to physical benefits, certain types of massage have been shown to help psychologically via relaxation and increased production of 'feel good' chemicals that the body naturally produces (endorphins)--helpful for people with both acute back problems and chronic back pain. This newsletter describes why massage may be right for you.

Benefits of Massage

Massage therapy is becoming more widely accepted in the medical community as a credible treatment for many types of back pain and/or as an adjunct to other medical treatments. Research shows that massage therapy has several potential health benefits for back pain sufferers, including:

  • Increased blood flow and circulation, which brings needed nutrition to muscles and tissues. This aids in recovery of muscle soreness from physical activity or soft tissue injury (such as muscle strain).
  • Decreased tension in the muscles. This muscle relaxation can improve flexibility, reduce pain caused by tight muscles and even improve sleep.
  • Increased endorphin levels--the "feel good" chemicals in the brain. This mood enhancer can ease depression and anxiety, which can help reduce pain and speed recovery--particularly important for those suffering from chronic back or neck problems.
Article continues below

Massage Therapy May Help Numerous Back Problems

Many healthcare providers say they will encourage their patients to pursue massage therapy in addition to medical treatment. If appropriate, you may want to ask your physician for a referral to a massage therapy professional in your area. Additionally, the American Massage Therapy Association website has a directory of trained and licensed massage therapy professionals at http://www.amtamassage.org.

There are numerous back problems that may benefit from massage therapy, including:

  • Muscle strain in the lower back or upper back/neck. Most episodes of acute lower back pain are caused by muscle strain, such as from lifting a heavy object, a sudden movement or a fall. The low back pain can be very severe and last for several hours, several days or even a few weeks. When back muscles are strained or torn, the area around the muscles can become inflamed. With inflammation, the muscles in the back can spasm and cause both severe lower back pain and difficulty moving. The large upper back muscles are also prone to irritation, either due to de-conditioning (lack of strength) or overuse injuries (such as repetitive motions). Upper back pain may also be due to a specific event, such as a muscle strain, sports injury, or auto accident. Massage can help work out the spasm/irritation and improve range of motion. Read more in Back muscles and low back pain and Causes of upper back pain.
  • Osteoarthritis of the spine. Spinal arthritis is the breakdown of the cartilage between the aligning facet joints in the back portion of the spine. The facet joints become inflamed and progressive joint degeneration creates more frictional pain as bone rubs on bone. Therapeutic massage can help reduce osteoarthritis pain by improving circulation and reducing stress and muscle tension. However, it is important to find a professional who is specifically trained in treating people with arthritis. See also More spinal arthritis treatments.
  • Fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia can affect people differently, but is usually characterized by pain, stiffness, fatigue and/or non-restorative sleep. The patient typically feels both widespread pain and pain in specific "tender points" as evidenced by physical examination. Massage can target both the tender points and the more broadly distributed pain and stiffness. Read more in Management of fibromyalgia.

Although massage is relatively safe, it is always advisable for patients to first check with their doctor before beginning massage therapy or any other treatment. There are some contraindications for massage therapy, such as (but not limited to): recent surgery; infectious skin disease, rash, or unhealed wound; varicose veins; and osteoporosis.

Massage Therapy Treatments for Back and Neck Pain--What's Involved

One question patients often ask is: What kind of massage should I try? For overall relaxation and circulation, many patients find the Swedish massage technique helpful. This technique is characterized by long gliding strokes and kneading motions. For specific pain points, such as a lower back muscle strain, the American Academy of Pain Management recognizes neuromuscular therapy (also called trigger point myotherapy) as an effective treatment. Shiatsu massage is a popular technique that utilizes some of the elements of neuromuscular therapy.

With neuromuscular therapy, the therapist applies alternating levels of concentrated pressure (10-30 seconds) on the areas of muscle spasm. The patient will feel some pain or discomfort from the pressure, but the muscle spasm should be lessened after the massage. Any soreness from the pressure should fade in 1 to 3 days, and the muscles that were worked should be less tight for a week or two afterwards. A typical massage therapy program for muscle spasms consists of four sessions over 6 weeks. Learn more in Neuromuscular massage therapy.

Alternatives to Hands-on Massage

What if periodic appointments with a massage therapist just aren't practical for you? Due to things like busy schedules, travel times to a good massage therapist in your area, or personal privacy, getting a hands-on massage may just not work for your lifestyle. While not an exact substitute for human touch, there may be alternatives. There are many therapeutic products available for use in the home, such as hand-held massagers and massage pillows, which are designed with the goal of mimicking some of the techniques used by massage therapists. For people who have experienced significant pain relief from massage and are interested in investing in a product that delivers overall, massage-like benefits, a massage chair may be an option. Most massage chairs are designed to mimic the Shiatsu and Swedish massage techniques, making them potentially helpful for specific pain points in the back or neck and for overall relaxation. Learn more in Massage chairs for pain relief.

Final Thoughts

Patients with severe back pain should be checked by medical personnel before beginning massage therapy, and patients should always obtain an accurate medical diagnosis for the cause of their back pain prior to beginning a new treatment such as massage therapy to rule out potentially serious conditions. Many massage therapy professionals will work as part of an interdisciplinary healthcare team for patient evaluation and treatment. The right healthcare team for you will depend on your specific back problem and personal preferences. If you aren't sure who should be on your team, check out Specialists who treat back pain.

Best wishes,
Peter F. Ullrich, Jr., MD, Medical Director
Stephanie Burke, President

About the Spine-health.com Newsletter: Each issue of the Spine-health.com newsletter, SpineNews Update, is written by the founders of Spine-health.com - Peter F. Ullrich, Jr., M.D., Medical Director for Spine-health.com and Stephanie Burke, President of Spine-health.com.The content in the newsletters is not peer reviewed by Spine-health.com’s Medical Advisory Board.The articles to which the Spine-health.com newsletters link have been peer reviewed by members of the Medical Advisory Board.