What Massage Works Best to Treat Back Pain?
I ran a 5k a couple weeks ago, and ever since then my back has been killing me. It really makes me feel old. Sometimes I bend over and worry I won’t be able to straighten back up. In the meantime, my training has fallen off. I don’t want to pull out of the race I registered for next month. I went to my doctor, but he just prescribed pain pills, which I’m reluctant to take. Is there a specific massage that would alleviate my back pain and get me back on track?
Since massage is non-invasive, you may experience some relief from your back pain with regular massage therapy. The type of massage you choose may depend on your level of experience with massage, as well as whether your pain is symptomatic of an actual injury.
You have no real way of knowing that your back pain is related to anything you did (or didn’t do) during the race, or over the course of your training – other than the fact that the pain started after you ran the 5k. But regardless of the cause of your pain, a massage could provide you with some relief. A group of medical researchers conducted a systematic review of published trials over decades and concluded that massage therapy could be strongly recommended as part of pain management to treat back pain.[i]
Generally speaking, massage therapy is effective and safe to help manage your pain,[ii] although you should keep in touch with your doctor and let them know that you’re trying massage to help your condition. Let your doctor know if massage doesn’t improve your pain, or if your pain worsens.
If you’re new to massage, you might start out with a Swedish massage. This is the most common type of massage therapy out there, so you should find it relatively easy to find a massage therapist who can come to you whenever you can fit the massage into your schedule. Swedish massage is relatively gentle, but can help release tension in your muscles and improve your circulation, which may help your back loosen up and ease your pain. However, Swedish massage was developed primarily to promote relaxation, so you may find that any benefits you get initially start to diminish over time.[iii]
Deep tissue massage is a more intense massage experience that reaches the deepest layers of your muscle tissue. You may find more relief with deep tissue massage over time, since it works to release chronically tense areas. Deep tissue massage typically will be more focused on the specific areas where you’re experiencing the most pain. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine revealed that 401 patients who experienced non-specific chronic low-back pain had better results with deep tissue massage than with relaxation massage.[iv]
You might also try sports massage, which combines Swedish massage and deep tissue massage, as well as some guided stretching to help your muscles recover and increase your flexibility. As someone clearly dedicated to physical fitness, sports massage may provide additional benefits that improve your performance.
To get the most benefit out of massage therapy, you should plan on getting a massage once a week, or at least once every other week, for a couple of months. Particularly with deep tissue massage, you’ll likely need more than one session to get the full benefit out of the treatment.
[i] Pain Medicine: “The Impact of Massage Therapy on Function in Pain Populations—A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials: Part I, Patients Experiencing Pain in the General Population” https://academic.oup.com/painmedicine/article/17/7/1353/2223191
[ii] National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Massage Therapy for Health Purposes” https://nccih.nih.gov/health/massage/massageintroduction.htm
[iii] Annals of Internal Medicine: “A Comparison of the Effects of 2 Types of Massage and Usual Care on Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized, Controlled Trial”https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3570565/
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