What’s The Evidence For Massage & Pain Relief?

In my career to date, massage has been a very efffective tool at providing short to medium term pain relief and a gateway to enhanced motor control. I have found it particularly effective around the upper back, shoulders and neck, where several muscles rely on each other for optimal joint movement and support. Many of my clients also tend to hold extra tension in these regions, either from work or the demands of their sport.

Systematic reviews (which are collated reviews of multiple studies) have consistently highlighted the potential of massage therapy to reduce pain through various mechanisms, including increased blood circulation, release of endorphins, and relaxation of muscle tension.

For instance, a systematic review by Crawford et al. (2016) found evidence supporting the use of massage for reducing pain intensity in patients with tension-type headaches. Yuan et al. (2020), have indicated the positive effects of massage therapy for chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia. This suggests its potential in offering relief for long-lasting pain.

When clinicians are deciding upon a health intervention for their clients, they look at the potential for adverse events, financial cost versus benefit, practicality / ease of use, and sustainability. In the absence of red flags (sinister suspicions such as calcification in the muscle, tumours, infections) massage therapy generally has a low risk of adverse events, making it a viable option for individuals with certain limitations or health conditions.

The obvious consideration that I openly discuss with my clients is the potential for the client to become reliant on massage alone for their pain relief needs. It is best practice in the field of Physiotherapy to empower the client to become more self-reliant with time. We do this through education, encouragement, and teaching the client new skills in exercise, daily movement, stress management and self-awareness.

Nevertheless, I still have a few clients who train hard in the gym, work hard in the office, and still enjoy a massage once a month for the general benefits. I continue to see improvements in the way their muscles feel through palpation between sessions and at the end of the session. These clients understand however, the active role they have to play between sessions in order to sustain and improve upon the results we’ve worked hard to achieve.

The benefits of daily exercise on pain management and prevention are well reported, and one of my most used mantras is to “teach you to be your own Physio.” In other words, to know what triggers your pain and the steps you can take to keep it at bay. It is always extremely rewarding to bump into a client several years later and have them tell me “I am still doing the exercises religiously.”

In conclusion, massage therapy has demonstrated its efficacy in pain relief through systematic reviews and to me, anecdotally. While massage therapy offers relaxation and targeted muscle relief, it continues to be considered best practice in Physiotherapy to empower the client long term with the addition of “hands-off” modalities such as exercise.

Evan Armstrong, Physio-PT.

(Photo courtesy of The Raymond Terrace Magpies Football Club. We wish them all the very best in their upcoming finals campaign. An exciting time of year!)

References:

  1. Crawford, C., Lee, C., Bove, G., Vernon, H., & Liguori, A. (2016). The Impact of Massage Therapy on Function in Pain Populations—A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials: Part II, Cancer Pain Populations. Pain Medicine, 17(8), 1553-1568.
  2. Yuan, S. L. K., Matsutani, L. A., Marques, A. P., & Pereira, L. V. (2020). Effectiveness of Different Styles of Massage Therapy in Fibromyalgia: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Manual Therapy, 45, 102–110.

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