Find out why getting a massage is more than just a pleasant and relaxing experience for people with chronic low back pain.
I'm sure most of us have had a massage at some point in our lives.
Whether it was on holiday, on a visit to the physio, as a member of a sports team, as a treat to yourself, or.........
Well let's not cover all the bases!
But suffice to say, for most people having a massage is a pleasant experience that leaves you feeling great afterwards.
However for people with chronic lower back pain massage can be more than just a pleasant experience.
It can significantly help to reduce muscle tension, pain, anxiety and negative emotions.
Read on and I'll explain the many benefits that having a massage will bring to you.
And specifically how it will help your back pain.
I'll also explain the different types of massage available and weigh up the benefits of each.
And finally I'll go over some self-massage options that can help you if regular massages from a professional are not going to be possible for you.
What Are The Benefits Of Massage Therapy?
So what can you expect to gain by going for a massage?
You'll feel more relaxed - This one might seem obvious but it's a good place to start!
One study for the treatment of elderly patients found that a gentle hand massage led to significant improvements in both physical and mental relaxation (1).
You'll experience less pain - Releasing tight muscle knots and easing muscle tension through massage has been shown to lower pain levels in people with chronic lower back pain.
These effects have been lasting too, in some cases for between 6 months and a year after the treatment has finished (2).
You'll be less stressed - Massage therapy has been shown to lead to lower stress levels along with reduced blood pressure and heart-rate (3).
One workplace study found that even as little as 15 minutes of massage therapy in the workplace led to a significant reduction in blood pressure in the workers afterwards (4).
You'll sleep better - The relaxing effects of getting a massage have been found to improve a person's sleep quality.
In one study comparing a group receiving massage therapy to a group receiving relaxation therapy, the massage group reported far fewer sleep disturbances afterwards (5).
This is great news as getting a good night's sleep is crucial for those of us with chronic back pain (find out why here).
You'll improve physically too - Massage has been found to increase the range of motion in athletes (6) as well as people with chronic pain.
In one study massage therapy was found to lead to greater physical improvements in people with lower back pain than exercise therapy did (7).
You'll experience improved balance and stability as you get older - Massage has been found to help elderly patients improve balance and posture (8).
The need to improve posture is not limited to the elderly either. Spending too much time sitting down can lead to lower back pain and posture problems.
Massage can help to iron out the muscle imbalances and weaknesses that prolonged sitting causes.
You'll be less likely to suffer from headaches - Massage therapy has been shown to lower the amount of tension headaches that people get (9).
You'll be less prone to depression - Depression has been shown to be a big problem for people with chronic pain and the more depressed people feel the higher their levels of pain get.
However massage therapy has been shown to produce large reductions in depression amongst affected adults (10).
You'll also be less anxious - Studies of people with lower back pain and high anxiety levels found that both their anxiety and pain was significantly lowered after a course of shiatsu massage (11).
There are numerous other claims about the benefits of massage such as a boosted immune system, increased blood circulation, detoxification and a release of endorphins amongst others.
However these are lacking in credible evidence so I'll let you make up your own mind on them!
But as you can see, massage can be a great help to those of us with chronic lower back pain.
Which Is The Best Type Of Massage Therapy To Reduce Back Pain?
There are a few different styles of massage out there and each has it's own benefits.
The one you go for may be down to what works best for your back pain or may just be down to personal preference.
So here is a quick overview so you'll know what to expect.
This is the most traditional and common form of massage.
The goal of a Swedish massage is to relax the whole body.
This is done by the use of 5 different strokes: long gliding strokes, kneading, light rhythmic tapping, friction (rubbing with deep circular movements), and vibration (shaking).
Massage oil is used to help with the movements and these strokes are usually combined with light movement of the joints.
While the goal of Swedish massage is of total muscle relaxation, the strokes can be either light or vigorous depending on what your therapist thinks you need.
The benefits of this type of massage are:
- It increases the level of oxygen in the blood and improves circulation.
- It increases muscle flexibility by easing muscle tension, which also energises the body.
- It reduces joint stiffness.
While Swedish massage is all about muscle relaxation, deep-tissue massage involves applying more pressure and works on the muscle tendons and surrounding tissues as well as the muscles themselves.
This form of massage uses similar strokes to Swedish massage but they are applied more slowly and with more pressure.
Be prepared for elbows, knuckles and thumbs being pushed hard down into your muscles to release deep knots!
This may not be for everyone as it can be uncomfortable and painful at times and can leave you feeling sore and tender for a day or two afterwards.
However deep-tissue massage is a popular form of massage for people with chronic muscle tension and athletes recovering from injuries.
So what are the benefits?
- It's been found to be good for lowering chronic pain and increasing physical mobility.
- It's good for rectifying posture problems.
- It's good for relieving osteoarthritis pain.
This kind of massage is more painful and goes deeper than a Swedish massage but could be a good option if the Swedish massage isn't working to relieve your back pain.
Trigger-point therapy works along similar lines to deep-tissue massage.
However rather than targeting the whole body, trigger-point therapy focuses on specific areas
We have trigger-points running through our muscles in various arts of the body.
When these are stressed (triggered) they can lead to muscle pain in the surrounding areas.
However they can also lead to muscle pain in completely different areas of the body and this makes the cause of pain hard to detect.
By working to release tension in the trigger-points your therapist will be aiming to relieve muscle tension in the surrounding areas and in turn lowering your pain levels.
This is done through applying cycles of pressure and release to the specific trigger-points with the aim of deactivating them, whilst you concentrate on trying to remain relaxed through deep-breathing.
For this therapy much more communication is needed with the therapist than in other forms of massage as they will need guidance on if they are hitting the right spot and how intense the pain at that particular trigger-point is.
So like deep-tissue massage this can also be a painful process at times.
However the benefits are:
- It aims to get to the root cause of your problem.
- It is good for relieving pain and tension.
- It can also be good for relieving headaches.
Shiatsu massage originated from Japan and uses finger pressure to work on various acupressure points around the head and body.
It is thought that these acupressure points are responsible for the flow of energy around the body, so manipulating them will remove any blockages and allow your energy to flow freely.
This is usually done fully clothed and the massage is quite an intense one.
But by working deep into the muscles it is been shown to be great for relieving stress and providing deep relaxation afterwards.
Other benefits include:
- It increases circulation.
- It has been shown to be good for pain relief.
- It aims to provide inner balance by unblocking energy channels.
- It also claims to boost your immune system too.
Thai massage consists of a full body massage usually starting from the feet and ending at the head.
Like Shiatsu massage this is done fully clothed and without oils.
It involves the compression and stretching of your joints and muscles to aid mobilisation.
But be warned, you will be manipulated like a rag doll during a Thai massage!
The therapist will use their own body to move you into various positions.
So expect to be walked on, knelt on, pulled, twisted, poked, prodded, clicked and cracked!
But as bad as that may sound the result is an intensely pleasurable and relaxing massage.
Thai massage is referred to as 'lazy yoga' by some as you are stretched and manipulated without any need for any effort on your part.
The aim is to open energy lines and remove blockages by releasing the acupressure points similar to Shiatsu.
And this can bring the following benefits:
- It's good for management of chronic pain as it provides temporary pain relief.
- It helps to rid you of fatigue by unblocking energy channels.
- It provides you with a general sense of relaxation an well-being.
You'll feel great after a Thai massage!
I'm sure after reading through the previous sections getting a massage will seem like a great idea.
And it is!
But there is one massive downside to getting a regular massage.
Professional massages are not cheap and if you want a weekly one then the costs can be too much for most people to be able to afford or justify.
However there are certain self-massage options available to you that can still give you some of the benefits of massage.
Do It Yourself!
While it's obviously not possible to give yourself a full body massage (unless you're Inspector Gadget!) you can still massage certain points in your back that can give you some relief.
This follows on from trigger-point therapy.
There are four main trigger-points in your back that are likely to cause or contribute to your lower back pain.
By locating these yourself you can apply pressure to them in short bursts (10-30 seconds) a few times per day.
And even this small amount of pressure and massage can work to release them and lower your muscle tension and pain.
Rather than trying to explain this procedure myself I've found great articles on this from a trigger-point pain expert called Paul Ingraham.
The first one explains how to locate these four trigger-points in your own back and you can find it here.
By clicking on each of the four one by one you'll get taken to further articles which will tell you what you need to do once you've found these trigger points to give yourself a self-massage.
I've been following Paul's advice myself these past few months and I've really felt an instant release of tension and relaxation after self-massaging my trigger-points.
Give it a go!
The Tennis Ball Technique
There are going to be certain areas that you just can't reach yourself.
Especially in the lower back area.
And even if you can reach them, it's likely that you won't be able to apply enough pressure to release your muscle knots.
These all have benefits and are helpful in working out your trigger points and relieving muscle pain.
However there is a good free option you can also try called the tennis ball technique.
This has been widely regarded as a useful form of self-massage treatment and has been used by professional dancers and athletes to keep their overworked muscles from tensing and cramping.
It works on the same principle as trigger-point therapy.
By applying pressure to a trigger point (by resting your body weight on the tennis ball) you can release the tension which will soften tight muscles and help to increase circulation.
To do this lie down and trap the tennis ball between your back and the floor and move it around until you find the point where your muscle pain is.
Now rest your body weight on the ball, breathe deeply and relax.
You should feel some pain but it should be 'good' pain, satisfying rather than uncomfortable.
After a minute or two you should feel the muscle knot begin to release.
The tennis ball technique is great for us with lower back pain as it's easy for us to get the right pressure by resting our body weight on the ball.
And it's cheap too!
Once again Paul Ingraham has written a more detailed article on how to do this which you can read here.
The Bath Technique
This is similar to the tennis ball technique but done in a hot bath instead.
It can be a good option if the tennis ball feels too hard on your back pain plus you get the added benefit of the heat of the bath which will be relaxing your muscles simultaneously.
So get into the bath, place a ball under your back in the right spot, then relax down onto it.
Obviously a tennis ball isn't ideal to use in the water.
A better option to go for would be a rubber ball or a dogs toy ball that will be more suited for this.
Something like this will work.
The Trigger-Point Self-Treatment System
This piece of apparatus was developed by a certified chiropractor and allows you to work on your trigger-points in your own home.
It works in a similar way to the tennis ball technique, however it provides a far more accurate and targeted system which allows you to work on more than one trigger-point at a time.
You get a treatment platform with holes across the board into which you place rubber tips depending on the location of the trigger points you need to release.
These rubber tips come in various lengths so you can adjust the intensity of the treatment.
Once you've placed the rubber tips in the right location all you need to do is lay down on the treatment platform, relax, and let gravity do the rest!
You can find more information on this product here.
Get Your Partner To Do It For You
While having a professional masseuse is obviously the best option, even they will take time to work out exactly what works for you and what you need to help your pain.
It usually takes a few sessions before they really begin to hit the right spots.
So another option would be to train your partner to give you the right kind of massage instead.
There are tons of 'How to' videos on YouTube that walk you through the massage process and how to apply the techniques involved.
And added to this you can guide your partner to really focus on the areas that need releasing and let them know if they are doing it right..
At the same time you can return the favour afterwards so you both get the benefits of a nice, relaxing massage.
So not only is this a cost effective way of getting a regular massage, it can also bring you closer in your relationship too.
The MELT Method
The MELT method is a fairly new self-care technique that aims to give people with chronic pain the same level of pain relief that they would get from a professional massage.
With the use of a foam roller and stability ball it works on releasing tension in the body's fascia which is the connective tissues in the body that surround the muscles and tendons.
The idea is that people suffer from chronic pain because they hold accumulated stress and tension in the fascia.
By releasing this trapped stress using the MELT method you improve the body's ability to restore balance and repair itself which not only helps to eliminate pain but also comes with other benefits such as slowing down the ageing process and increasing energy levels.
There's a good article with a video that explains the MELT method really well that you can view here.
The MELT method is easy to follow coming with an instruction manual and 3 DVDs and can be done at home in very little time.
You can start to see results from as little as 10 minutes per session, 3 times per week although for best results it is much better to do them a couple of times per day.
But 10 minutes in the morning and after work is still not much of a hardship if the benefits follow.
And in a recent study by the New Jersey Institute of Technology the MELT method was shown to be great for people with chronic low back pain (12).
44 people with chronic low back pain were split into two groups, one that would use the MELT method for 4 weeks and the other who would just continue with their normal routine.
After the 4 weeks were up the group who were using the MELT method were found to have significantly less pain, they had more flexibility, their fascia was showing a significant decrease in thickness and they had significantly less stress in their lower back area (12).
The group who continued their normal routines showed none of these effects (12)!
So as a self-massage technique that delivers similar benefits to a professional massage, I'd say the MELT method is definitely worth considering.
You can find out more by visiting their website here.
As you can see, getting a massage is far more than just a pleasant and relaxing experience.
It also provides many health benefits and can be a big help in managing chronic low back pain.
A good massage can help to:
- Make you more relaxed.
- Reduce your pain levels.
- Make you less stressed.
- Give you a better night's sleep.
- Improve your physical mobility, stability and balance.
- Make you less prone to headaches.
- Make you less prone to depression.
- Make you less anxious.
So a good idea all round!
There are various types of massage you can go for ranging from a relaxing Swedish massage, a more intense Deep-tissue or Trigger-point massage, or a more holistic massage such as Shiatsu or Thai.
However the cost of getting a professional massage on a regular basis can be out of reach for most people.
Therefore it's good to look at self-massage techniques so you can still gain the benefits at a fraction of the cost.
You can learn to do it yourself by working on your own trigger-points.
Or you can use the tennis ball or bath technique to get to those hard to reach places.
Another option would be to train your partner to give you a the perfect massage for your back pain.
Or finally you can use the MELT method which has been proven to be highly beneficial for people with chronic low back pain.
Whatever option you decide to try I hope you can begin to feel some of the benefits of massage for yourself.
Let me know how you get on in the comments box!