A new study shows massage therapy may help people who suffer from chronic back pain.
After 10 weeks, patients who got weekly massage sessions used less pain medicine and spent less time in bed than those who didn't get any special care -- although the effects had disappeared after a year.
"If we look at patients who seemed to have some substantial improvement, that was about two-thirds in the massage group compared to about one-third among patients getting usual care," said Dr. Richard A. Deyo of the Oregon Health and Science University, who worked on the study.
The research was led by Daniel Cherkin at the nonprofit Group Health Research Institute in Seattle.
Deyo said some degree of lower back pain is a common ailment in the population, with about 10 percent of sufferers experiencing long-lasting symptoms.
"We have a whole lot of treatments, and when you see a whole lot of treatments, it usually means that none of them is clearly effective and superior," he told Reuters Health.
While pain medications are the go-to treatment, many people now also use alternative treatments like acupuncture, massage or even talk therapy, which recent work suggests is effective.
In the new study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, 401 people were randomly assigned to usual care or one of two kinds of massage therapy: either so-called structural massage, or relaxation massage (also called Swedish massage).
After 10 weeks the massage group had improved considerably compared to the other patients.
For instance, about 30 percent of those getting massages had used painkillers in the past week, compared to 40 percent of those getting usual care. And twice as many in the usual care group -- seven percent -- had stayed in bed at least one day in the past month.
However, some of the apparent benefits of massage had vanished after half a year, and all the gains were gone after a full year had passed.
There weren't any substantial difference between the two kinds of massage, the researchers say, adding that the Swedish version is widely available for about $60 per session.
Deyo said the new results compare to what is seen with other kinds of treatment, although the cost-effectiveness is still unclear.
One caveat, he added, is that patients knew which kind of treatment they got in the study, and some might have been disappointed that they didn't get massages, which could have affected the results.
Deyo said acute back pain can usually be taken care of with over-the-counter painkillers or heat pads, as long as there aren't any other symptoms like numbness or tingling in the legs.
For chronic sufferers, what works best will depend on the individual.
"Many of us believe that for truly chronic pain problems, exercise programs are actually one of the mainstay treatments that will help people function better on a daily basis," Deyo said.