Relaxation massage and structural massage each surpassed usual care in improving pain and function in patients with chronic low back pain that participated in a clinical trial.

Researchers enrolled 401 patients aged 20 to 65 years with nonspecific chronic low back pain and randomly assigned them to receive either relaxation massage, structural massage or usual care. Relaxation massage is intended to induce a generalized sense of relaxation through circular friction, vibration, rocking, jostling and holding, whereas structural massage aims to resolve soft-tissue abnormalities at the root of musculoskeletal contributors to back pain.

Participants received 10 weekly treatments with each type of massage, with first visits lasting 75 to 90 minutes and subsequent visits lasting 50 to 60 minutes. Therapists also recommended at-home exercises. The usual-care patients received no special care for their back problems.

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At 10 weeks, six months and one year, the massage groups fared much better than those receiving usual care, with the former being twice as likely to report significant improvements in pain and function compared with the usual-care patients. Approximately two-thirds of the massage patients improved substantially, compared with an estimated one-third of the usual-care group.

Cherkin DC et al. Ann Intern Med. 2011;155:1-9.