Research has shown that—in general—massage is a beneficial and safe therapy. It can relieve stress, relax tightened muscles, and increase endorphins.
However, the evidence for its effectiveness in treating low back pain of nonspecific cause is more mixed.
2 large reviews find small, short-term benefits
To look at the potential benefits of massage for low back pain, two recent systemic reviews give us the best look at what researchers have found. A systematic review is when researchers go through several large databases of individual studies to compile the results of similar studies and get a "big picture" view of research results.
One review included 25 studies and a total of more than 3,000 participants.1 The studies under review compared change in either pain or function for those who had low back pain and received massage therapy, compared with those who had different or no therapies.
There was a small but significant improvement in short-term pain (but not for function) for the massage recipients. Over the long term, there was no difference.
The second review was actually an umbrella review of 9 previous systematic reviews.2 Since each of these 9 reviews compiled findings from up to 11 studies, this means the umbrella review included dozens of studies.
The umbrella review concluded 3 points:
- There is a small amount of evidence that massage therapy can relieve pain and improve function in the short term, compared with placebo or no therapy.
- There doesn't seem to be any benefits for long-term massage therapy (longer than 6 months).
- Even though many studies have been done about massage therapy for low back pain, the evidence is still fairly weak. This is because massage studies are prone to poor methodology and high risk of bias.
Massage works best in combination with other treatments
So what does all this mean for you? If you have low back pain from a nonspecific cause—and you're already using other treatment methods like exercise, anti-inflammatory medications, or heat and ice therapy—there's no harm in also giving massage therapy a try! It's a relaxing and enjoyable activity that may also make living with back pain a little easier.
- Massage for low-back pain. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Sep 1;(9):CD001929. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001929.pub3
- The effectiveness of massage therapy for the treatment of nonspecific low back pain: a systematic review of systematic reviews. Int J Gen Med. 2013; 6: 733–741. Published online 2013 Sep 4. doi: 10.2147/IJGM.S50243