Low Back Pain? Let the Fingers Do the Walking

Sandra A. Fryhofer, MD


August 04, 2011

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Hello. I'm Dr. Sandra Fryhofer. Welcome to Medicine Matters. The topic: What's the best treatment for back pain: massage or medication? A new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine could make a massage part of mainstream medicine.[1,2] Here's why it matters.

Back pain sends millions of Americans to their doctors and is among patients' most common complaints. Americans also make more than 1 million visits to massage therapists each year.

Massages pamper and relax people, but do they really help manage chronic back pain? This new study finds they may be more effective than usual medical interventions. Researchers at the University of Washington studied more than 400 patients with chronic low back pain who were 20-65 years old. The Roland Disability Questionnaire measured symptom severity at the study's start, at 10 weeks, 6 months, and after a year. For 10 weeks, patients were randomly given either a relaxation massage, a structural massage that focused on specific tissue abnormalities, or the usual type of medical treatment, which could include pain medication, anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants, or physical therapy, but no massage.

After 10 weeks the massage group reported twice the improvement in symptoms. They had less pain and better function. They used fewer anti-inflammatory agents, and their symptom improvement seemed to last up to 6 months. However, 1 year later there was no difference in perceived pain and function among the 3 regimens.

Which type of massage was best? There was no difference, but it is certainly easier to find a therapist who does relaxation massages than one trained in structural massages. Relaxation massages are also less expensive. This study was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

For Medicine Matters I'm Dr. Sandra Fryhofer.


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