Now, a new study says massage may be an effective treatment. The study, however, leaves out one important question.
Chronic lower back pain is one of the peskiest conditions to treat. Sometimes it goes away on its own, other times it keeps returning. After structural damage or disease is ruled out by a CAT scan, people are usually referred to standard treatment, which can often work.
"The standard primary care for back pain involves medications," said Dr. Daniel Cherkin, of the Group Health Research Institute. "Particularly non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medication. Muscle relaxants, opiods and also physical therapy is often recommended."
The new study followed 400 lower back pain patients with weekly one-hour massages or with standard care. It went on for 10 weeks.
One third got relaxation massages. One third got specific structural massages, intended to identify muscle spasms that can cause low back pain. The last group got standard care, which is medication or physical therapy.
Results after 10 weeks favored massage.
"We found that patients receiving massage were twice as likely as those receiving usual care to report significant improvements in both their pain and function," Dr. Cherkin said.
While the massages were monitored closely, the standard care group was not.
And these findings also did not answer some questions. Most people, whether they have back pain or not, usually feel better after a massage. From the study it was impossible to determine if the placebo effect played a part - in other words, if patients expected to feel better and therefore did.
While massage may help some patients with low back pain, as do other therapies, it will not, unfortunately, be the answer for everyone. But strengthening both the back and the core muscles can be important and helpful.