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Massage is effective treatment for low back pain, study finds

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People suffering with chronic low back pain can gain a real benefit from massage therapy, according to a study published online in the journal Pain Medicine.

Low back pain often improves on its own, but around one-third of patients report persistent back pain, and 15% develop chronic low back pain with significant physical limitations, according to Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, which was involved in the research.

In the study, patients with chronic low back pain were referred by a physician to a massage therapist. The massage therapist designed and provided a series of 10 massages in a clinical treatment environment, mimicking the experience of people who choose to seek massage therapy in the real world.

The findings revealed that:

• Adults in the baby-boom and older generations tended to be much more likely to experience clinically meaningful changes.

• Obese patients experienced significant improvements, but those improvements were not retained over time.

• Patients who were taking opioids experienced improvements in their pain from disability in some cases but were two times less likely to experience clinically meaningful change compared to those who were not taking opioids.

Niki Munk, an assistant professor of health sciences and one of the co-first authors of the study, said that the study results are promising, but further research is necessary. For example, additional investigation is needed to replicate the results of the initial study and to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of massage therapy.

“Massage is an out-of-pocket cost,” Munk explained. “Generally, people wonder if it is worth it. Will it pay to provide massage to people for an extended period of time? Will it help avoid back surgeries, for example, that may or may not have great outcomes? These are the types of analyses that we hope will result from this study.”