Photo of a back massage
Regular massage can relieve a wide variety of different kinds of pain

Got pain? Try a massage!

4 June, 2013

We all have different ways of dealing with pain.

For occasional or transient pain, many of us just grin and bear it. Some turn to paracetamol or other over the counter pain relievers. Still others try hot baths, heating pads, warming or cooling gels and muscle rubs, lying on hard surfaces or gentle exercise like swimming or yoga.

Relief from pain is important because pain can negatively affect a person’s quality of life as well as interfering with recovery from illness or injury.

Pain can be occasional, acute or chronic, depending on whether the person has had an accident, is suffering from musculoskeletal dysfunction, or lack of movement or mobility. If you have pain that just won’t go away it is always a good to consult with a healthcare practitioner for help and advice on your best treatment options.

Beyond pampering

Chances are one of your doctor’s recommendations will be to try a massage. In fact,results from the American Massage Therapy Association’s 16th annual consumer survey reveal that 50% of people surveyed claim their doctor has either strongly recommended or encouraged them to get a massage.

More and more of us are incorporating massage therapy into our regular health and wellness regimens to assist with medical conditions and the AMTA’s survey also found that most people don’t think of massage as just a pampering luxury:

  • 75% surveyed claim that their primary reason for receiving a massage was medical (43 percent) or stress (32 percent) related
  • 89% believe that massage can be effective in reducing pain, with 29 percent of respondents admitting they have used massage therapy for pain relief

What the research says

The AMTA has produced several recent research round-ups on the benefits of massage in some difficult to treat problems. Here’s what these have found:

Reduced inflammation after exercise

Canadian research in Science Translational Medicine indicates that massage therapy reduces inflammation of skeletal muscle acutely damaged through exercise. The study found evidence at the cellular level that massage therapy may affect inflammation in a way similar to anti-inflammatory medications.

The authors say the study provides evidence for the benefits of massage therapy for those with musculoskeletal injuries and potentially for those with inflammatory disease.

Relief from chronic low-back pain

A 2011 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine expanded on previous studies demonstrating the effectiveness of massage therapy for chronic low back pain. Participants had a 60-minute massage once a week for 10 weeks.

Researchers found that “patients receiving massage were twice as likely as those receiving usual care to report significant improvements in both their pain and function”. Massage patients also reported a reduction in the amount of over the counter anti-inflammatory medications they took.

The study compared both relaxation massage and “structural massage” therapy and found no difference in the results between the type of massage given.

Less sensitivity in fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic syndrome characterised by generalised pain, joint rigidity, intense fatigue, sleep alterations, headache, spastic colon, jaw pain, anxiety, and depression. This study in the journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine demonstrated that massage/myofascial release techniques improved pain and quality of life in patients with fibromyalgia.

In it people suffering with fibromyalgia who received 90-minute massage for 20 weeks experienced significant reductions in sensitivity to pain at tender points.

Immediately after treatment and onemonth after the massage programme, anxiety levels, quality of sleep, pain and quality of life were still improved.

Less pain for rheumatoid arthritis patients

Evidence from a study in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice showed that adults with rheumatoid arthritis may feel a decrease in pain, as well as greater grip strength and range of motion in writs and large upper joins, after receiving regular moderate-pressure massages during a 4-week period. This research demonstrates the potential value of massage therapy for the millions living with this chronic condition, the majority of whom are women.  

Less pain in osteoarthritis of the knee

Research supported by the prestigious US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) showed that sixty minute sessions of Swedish massage once a week for those with osteoarthritis of the knee significantly reduced their pain. The study published in PLOS One involved a total group of 125 subjects, with 25 receiving the 60-minute massage over 8 weeks, while others received less massage or usual care without massage. Previous studies on massage for the pain of osteoarthritis of the knee showed similar results, but were on a more limited number of subjects.

Reduced pain, anxiety and muscular tension after heart surgery

A study published in the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery indicates that massage therapy can significantly reduce pain, anxiety and muscular tension, as well as enhance relaxation and satisfaction after cardiac surgery. Cardiac surgery recovery is a crucial time, often involving significant pain which a patient must endure. This study further suggests that massage therapy can be a useful aid in making the road to recovery an easier journey.

Improved wellbeing for cancer patients

Research published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine  found that therapeutic massage at home for metastatic cancer patients can improve their overall quality of life by reducing pain and improving sleep quality. The findings suggest that cancer patients can also benefit from professional massage, both physically and mentally, providing the necessary comfort during advanced stages of the disease.

Research published in BMJ Supportive and Palliative Care indicates that massage therapy can have a positive influence on the quality of life of people suffering serious illnesses such as brain cancer. In patients with late stage disease and when used in combination with standard care, massage can help reduce stress, anxiety, pain and fatigue.