A back massage can
release tension and back pain

Most healthcare providers are recognizing back massage therapy as a legitimate aid for back pain. Fifty-four percent of healthcare providers say they will encourage their patients to pursue massage therapy in addition to medical treatment.

The list of possible causes of back pain is long, ranging from chronic muscle tension to disc problems to tumor or infection.

Anatomy of the Spine

Let's start by looking at the anatomy of the spine. Bones called vertebra (vertebrae is plural) form the bony spinal column. Between the vertebrae are jelly-like cushions called intervertebral discs. Ligaments connect each vertebra to adjacent ones at the facet joints. Also, many muscles surround, support, and move the spine.

The vertebrae have holes called vertebral foramen that create the spinal canal, through which the spinal cord passes. The spinal cord is a large bundle of nerves that controls the entire body. Individual nerves leave the spinal cord to go to other parts of the body through openings in the vertebrae called intervertebral foramen.

Lots of things can happen in the spine that can lead to pain and other symptoms in the back, including:

  • Arthritis can develop in the facet joints, especially in the lower back.
  • Abnormal curves can develop in the spine, such as scoliosis, kyphosis (too much outward curve in the upper back), or too much or too little curve in the lower back.
  • Discs can bulge out of place or rupture and press on a nerve.
  • The intervertebral foramen can narrow (foraminal stenosis) and put pressure on the nerves leaving the spinal cord. Also, the spinal canal can narrow (spinal stenosis) and put pressure on the spinal cord or individual nerves.
  • Osteoporosis can cause compression fractures in the vertebrae.
  • You can strain the ligaments connecting the vertebrae.
  • You can sprain or pull muscles in the back.
  • Stress and muscle tension can cause pain.

Massage for pain

Although some conditions, such as tumor, infection, or stress fracture, make massage inadvisable, for a lot of pain that occurs in the back, many studies show that a back massage helps bring relief.

A component of most back pain is muscle tension. Even with other factors involved, relieving muscle tension and balancing the muscles surrounding the spine can help in the healing process. In addition to releasing muscle tension, massage can improve blood circulation, which helps the body in self-healing, and increase the level of endorphins, natural pain-relieving chemicals produced by the body.

The type of massage that works best for you will depend on the underlying cause of your pain. If stress and muscle tension are the primary problems, basic Swedish massage can help release tension. Adding essential oils for an aromatherapy massage can provide even more relaxing benefits. Plus, some essential oils are useful for helping reduce inflammation.

However, often more focused massage approaches are needed. For example, deep tissue massage attempts to address problems in the deeper muscles around the spine. An alternative to the deep pressure of deep tissue massage is cupping massage, a practice adapted from Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Cupping is a negative pressure massage that affects the deeper muscles. Some massage therapists remove the air from a cup using a flame and then place the cup on your body; other therapists use a manual vacuum set, placing a cup on your body and removing the air from with an attached pump. The vacuum in the cup creates suction that lifts the muscle tissue. The therapist then uses the cups to perform massage strokes.

Another option for back pain is myofascial release. Fascia is connective tissue that covers muscles and most other internal structures of the body. Myofascial refers to the combination of muscle and fascia. Myofascial release uses gentle sustained pressure into restrictions in the myofascia to eliminate pain and restore motion.

Trigger Points

Trigger points are small, irritable spots in the muscles that refer pain to other areas. For example, trigger points in the abdominal muscles can cause low back pain, and trigger points in one part of the back can cause pain in another part of the back.

The two most common massage approaches to getting rid of trigger points are trigger point therapy and neuromuscular therapy. Although the details of these therapies vary, the basic approach is to apply pressure directly to the trigger points for up to 30 to 60 seconds or to use short, deep "stripping" strokes over the trigger points. Cupping massage can also help release trigger points.

Research on Back Massage and Back Pain

Here's just a small sampling of research that supports the benefits of back massage for back pain:

The study compared massage, acupuncture, and education on self-care for chronic low back pain in 262 adults. Massage was the most helpful therapy at the end of the 10-week treatment period and still provided the most benefit one year later. (Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound Center for Health Studies, Archives of Internal Medicine, April 23, 2001.)

Back massage improved function and reduced pain and anxiety associated with subacute pain in the low back. (College of Massage Therapists of Ontario, Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2000, pp. 1815-1820.)

Participants receiving massage therapy group reported less pain, depression, and anxiety and improved sleep. They also had improved trunk flexion, and their serotonin and dopamine levels were higher. (Touch Research Institute)

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