17 Jun 2009 04:26 pm
I’ve had several readers write to me over the years and ask my opinion on massage therapy and whether or not I thought it was effective for back pain relief.
Unfortunately, at the time I was unable to answer their questions as completely as I would have liked.
You see the problem with giving an opinion — or being able to recommend a therapy — is that there is quite often a lack of reliable information on the subject. Up until now, we’ve only had anecdotal evidence to suggest that massage therapy helped to reduce pain. And as you know, anecdotal evidence leaves plenty of room for doubt.
However, I recently ran across a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that finally lends some credibility to this very popular treatment method.
The study involved 380 adults with advanced cancer who were experiencing moderate-to-severe pain. The participants were divided into two groups. One group received six 30-minute massage treatments over two weeks from certified massage therapists, while the control group received an equal number of treatments utilizing simple touch performed by untrained individuals.
The good news is that both groups experienced immediate pain relief according to the report:
“Primary outcomes were immediate … and sustained … change in pain. Secondary outcomes were immediate change in mood …
Both groups demonstrated immediate improvement in pain and mood …
Massage was superior for both immediate pain and mood … ” 
Now, while this is good news, it should be noted that patients did not experience total pain relief from the treatments. Their pain was only reduced between 1 to 2 points on a 0 – 10 scale. This represents a significant improvement, but not total relief.
Also, this was not a blind study as noted here…
“Limitations: The immediate outcome measures were obtained by unblinded study therapists, possibly leading to reporting bias and the overestimation of a beneficial effect. The generalizability to all patients with advanced cancer is uncertain. The differential beneficial effect of massage therapy over simple touch is not conclusive without a usual care control group.” 
The report went on to conclude…
“Massage may have immediately beneficial effects on pain and mood among patients with advanced cancer. Given the lack of sustained effects and the observed improvements in both study groups, the potential benefits of attention and simple touch should also be considered in this patient population.” 
Herein Lies the Rub
Now perhaps you noticed that this study did not directly involve treatment for back pain. This is something that I happen to consider a plus rather than a negative.
After all, what’s significant about this study is that it was conducted on advanced cancer patients. These were people with real pain. There was little or no chance that their pain was psychosomatic in nature.
The same cannot be said about back pain or migraine headaches or any other form of pain where emotions or stress can influence the results. After all, the brain can play tricks on us.
And while one study is not enough to establish proof, and it was not a double-blind situation, and the patients did not receive total pain relief, the fact remains that the results were immediate and sustained for the short term.
Overall, I feel the positive outcomes from this study are encouraging.
Until next time,
1. Kutner, JS. et all. Massage Therapy versus Simple Touch to Improve Pain and Mood in Patients with Advanced Cancer, A Randomized Trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. 16 September 2008 | Volume 149 Issue 6 | Pages 369-379