Anyone with recurring, unyielding back problems knows the beast that is called back pain. While most of us have experienced back pain that comes from overexertion or muscle pulls, the effects of back pain for many can be debilitating, excruciating, and life changing. Managing back pain can be a daunting and exhausting proposition. One natural avenue for finding relief is massage therapy.
Whether you've pulled a muscle in your yoga class or afternoon basketball game, or you suffer from long-term pain caused by an injury, back pain affects us all. In fact, when it comes to low-back pain specifically, researchers say that 70-85 percent of the population will experience it at some point in their lives.
Obviously, the costs associated with back pain are also growing. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), Americans spend at least $50 billion each year on low-back pain alone, which is second only to headaches as the most common neurological ailment in the United States.
What Causes The Pain? Back pain is an especially debilitating condition because every movement your body makes depends on the spine functioning optimally. When back pain shows up, your whole body knows it, and sometimes exacerbates the problem by compensating in other ways to avoid the pain. It's not unusual for sufferers to have secondary problems related to those compensation patterns.
Experts say the cause of back pain can be the result of several factors. High on the list is stress. Hunched over a keyboard, late on a deadline, bogged down in worry--many are familiar with this life. When our body is stressed, we literally begin to pull inward: the shoulders roll forward and move up to the ears, the neck disappears, and the back tightens in the new posture. "It's an armoring effect," says Angie Parris-Raney, a Denver-based massage therapist who specializes in deep-tissue massage and sports therapy. She says this natural response to pain can create more problems when left unchecked. "That protective mode, with the muscles in flex, can even result in visceral problems," she says, where the pain also affects internal organs.
In addition to stress, poor posture, bad ergonomics, lack of exercise, arthritis, osteoporosis, a sedentary lifestyle, overexertion, pregnancy, kidney stones, fibromyalgia, excess weight, and more can spark back pain.
Massage Offers Hope Those who suffer with back pain know there are no easy answers for chasing the pain away. Physical therapy has proven effective for some sufferers, as has chiropractic and acupuncture, but massage therapy is also making a name for itself when it comes to providing relief. In fact, research has shown that massage can be a great friend to the back-pain sufferer.
"Massage therapists have long treated low-back pain safely and effectively," says Les Sweeney, president of Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals. "They have done so less expensively and less invasively than is possible with other treatments."
In fact, an August 2005 issue of Consumer Reports cited deep-tissue massage as one of the remedies voted most effective by readers for back pain, while other research from the University of Miami School of Medicine and the Touch Research Institute showed that massage can decrease stress and long-term pain, improve sleep and range of motion, and help lower the incidence of depression and anxiety that often accompanies back pain.
Another study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that massage significantly reduced the pain of moderately severe chronic back pain sufferers. After an hour of massage, once a week for 10 weeks, clients reported that their pain had decreased by nearly 50 percent. Most study participants reported that the relief lasted at least a year after their last massage session.
The length of pain relief provided by massage therapy varies depending on the condition they are experiencing. Getting on a regular massage schedule, however, has really helped her clients manage the back pain, she says. When they go past their normally scheduled appointment, "their bodies know it's time to get a massage again." Whether it's just helping clients get through the day, or reminding the stressed-out office worker to breathe, Parris-Raney says massage can play an important part in back pain relief.
When it comes to those more severe cases of back pain, Bishop says it's often good for back pain sufferers to find therapists with advanced training. "Seek out someone who has done some degree of advanced training in low-back pain mechanisms and treatment for such conditions. While Swedish-type massage has value for cooling down some of the pain receptors in the superficial tissue, if the cause of pain is from the receptors embedded in the deeper tissues, ligaments, joint capsule, nerves, etc., a more accurate assessment and treatment technique may be necessary."
Massage Works When it comes to back pain, there are a lot of options out there. Some are more effective than others, experts say, depending on the condition for which they're being applied. Ultimately, massage, and its myriad benefits, might be a viable answer. For back pain sufferers. "Massage can help relax the body, relax the psyche, and improve a client's range of motion and circulation to the affected tissues," she says. Not only can massage help directly with the pain, but it can also make life a little easier, too. "Massage lets you tap into the parasympathetic system," she says, "and tap into all the good hormones that help you sleep better and help you handle stressors along the way." And that all helps in building a healthier back and a happier you.
By Karrie Osborn
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2010. Copyright 2010. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
Karrie Osborn is contributing editor of Body Sense magazine.