Access pain relief without medication

Tracy Woolrich's picture
Pain relief pills

It is conceivable that massage can provide effective relief from low back pain. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests it might indeed alleviate back pain better than traditional approached such as medication, exercise and bed rest. Is this possible and how long does the pain relief last?

This study involved 400 patients who had low back pain. The vast majority were middle aged Caucasian females. They discovered that those who were given a series of massage sessions were able to better return to their normal activities of daily living and work. What surprised the researchers was that the improvement was superior to conventional medical care, such as muscle relaxers, pain medication and physical therapy.

During my time working with neck and back pain patients for Alternative Medicine Integration of Florida I witnessed this first hand. One such patient was a poster child for what massage can do. She was so impressed with what massage did for her she gladly gave interviews and told all of her friends and neighbors about the benefits for massage and what it did to give her back her life.

Virginia Hatch, a then 51 year old grandmother was caring part time for 3 small children in her house. That is no small feat for anyone, and especially for someone who is suffering from pain. She entered our program in hopes of finding a small amount of relief from the pain associated with housekeeping and caring for the children. "I overwork my back and it goes out,” said Hatch. She was reluctant and skeptical however decided to have what she thought was the luxury of receiving massage.

Her reluctance soon disappeared as she discovered that it not only eased her pain but her stress. "It's good for easing tension," she shared. She went on to say that she felt more and more comfortable during her massages as the therapist was not only performing the needed therapy but also explaining the cause and effect. “The massage therapists explain what's going on when they hit certain parts of the body during a massage," she explained. She appreciated that it allowed her to reduce her pain and increase her mobility. It also reduced her need for pain medication which she felt benefited her while in charge of the care of the children in her home. This type of outcomes is verified by this 2011 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The study was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine as part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. By the conclusion of the 10 week project, over 33 percent of the patients given massage therapy indicated that their pain was much improved or even eliminated completely. This was in compassion to only one in 25 patients who were given conventional care. In addition, they were more likely to have spent less time in bed and used less pain medication.


One of the more encouraging elements of the study was that the beneficial effects of the massage seemed not only to be experienced during the research period, but also lingered for a time following the completion of the therapy. This was evidenced by the lingering effect of massage continued to display improvement in function for several months after the study's onset.

According to Hatch, her experience is that the benefits of the massage therapy treatment vary. It all seems to depend on the continued demands of her life. Sometimes it only lasts 3 days. Other times the relief lasts up to 10. However she admits that "It lasts until the next time I overwork my back!"

Lead author of the study, Daniel Cherkin, was surprised by the fact that strong, deep structural massage did not prove better than gentle Swedish relaxation massage in reducing symptoms. One theory is that gentle massage produces a general central nervous system response. (See benefits of Swedish massage )

The study merely suggests that there are benefits to back massage. There will always be members of the medical community that will continue to be reluctant to accept the benefits as being valid. As younger physicians enter the medical field with training in the benefits of alternative medicine, this may change.

Take home message:

Can the medical community truly accept massage as a valuable part of pain management? I hope so. I believe in an integrative approach using the best of both worlds. It is best stated below by the multi-platinum country artist Naomi Judd.

“For many people, managing pain involves using prescription medicine in combination with complementary techniques like physical therapy, acupuncture, yoga and massage. I appreciate this because I truly believe medical care should address the person as a whole - their mind, body, and spirit.”


Annals of Internal Medicine