Massage Therapy for Lower Back Pain

Therapeutic massage therapy is a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) that involves the manipulation of the body’s soft tissues through specialized hands-on movements. The purpose of therapeutic massage is to influence cellular changes in the soft tissues that promote healing, reduce pain, and enhance overall wellness.

In the lower back, massage therapy affects the muscular and skeletal systems at the superficial and deep layers to foster healing and reduce pain. In a study that included 104 participants with lower back pain, over 40% of the patients experienced long-term, meaningful improvements in their back pain and disability after a series of therapeutic massage treatments. This article provides a guide to the objectives and potential benefits of massage therapy in treating lower back pain.

How Massage Therapy Works

Massage techniques involve a combination of hands-on movements, such as kneading, stretching, compressing, and/or gliding that may range from light stroking to deep pressure. Massage is typically combined with first-line treatments, such as physical therapy or manual manipulation, and aims to reduce pain, increase physical activity, and improve the quality of life.

Goals of massage therapy

The effects of massage therapy can be physical and psychological. In the lower back, massage stimulates the blood vessels, collagen fibers, muscle and tendon tissue, and nerve cells and may produce one or more of the following changes:

  • Reduce stiffness in the muscle
  • es and tendons
  • Improve tissue elasticity and increase the range of motion of joints
  • Decrease inflammation and swelling in the soft tissues
  • Reduce scar tissue formation
  • Influence blood flow in the muscles, which in turn promotes nutrient exchange and removal of toxins, decreasing pain

Massage also increases the levels of endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine: hormones that help decrease pain, regulate sleep and mood, and promote relaxation.1 While patients typically opt for massage therapy as a personal choice, some primary care providers may refer their patients to a massage therapist for back pain management.

Common Types of Massages for Treating Lower Back Pain

Depending on the treatment goals, different types of massage therapies may be considered. Each massage type works on a different principle to manipulate the tissue and produce the desired effects. While some techniques use light pressure and strokes, others use heat or knead deeper to stimulate the inner layers of tissue. Professional massage therapists are trained in different types of techniques and may sometimes use a combination of techniques to deliver massage treatment.

Lower Back Pain

Trigger points are taut bands of muscle tissue that are highly sensitive and induce pain when stimulated.

Neuromuscular massage or trigger point therapy

Neuromuscular massage is a type of hands-on therapy that targets myofascial trigger points under the skin, which are hypothesized to be responsible for musculoskeletal pain. These trigger points are taut bands of muscle tissue that are highly sensitive and induce pain when stimulated.

  • In treating lower back pain, the therapist identifies trigger points in the back, buttocks, and thighs. The thumb presses firmly on the bands, one at a time, for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. The practitioner controls the intensity of the pressure applied to ensure a bearable and comfortable experience. They repeat the sequence of compression several times on all the trigger points.4
  • Trigger point massage relieves tightness in muscle tissue(s) and loosens the fibers through sequential compression and relaxation. The release of tension within the muscle fibers encourages new blood flow, promoting healing.

Trigger point therapy may be beneficial in treating acute low back pain originating from muscle tissue.4

Read more about Myofascial Therapy for the Treatment of Acute and Chronic Pain.

Swedish Massage

Swedish massage promotes relaxation in the soft tissues through repeated long strokes, kneading, and elongating techniques that encourage blood circulation, loosen the tissues, and remove stiffness.

Posterior view of lower body highlighting back, hamstring, and calf muscles.

In a Swedish massage, the therapist pays attention to the muscles in the lower back, thigh, and calf to help relieve back pain.

  • For lower back pain, the patient lies face-down, and the therapist pays attention to the back muscles, hamstrings, and calf muscles. The health of the hamstrings and calf muscles play important roles in promoting back strength and lengthening these muscle groups can help improve lower back pain.
  • Swedish massage may help reduce scar tissue formation, modify muscle tone, and increase muscle length and flexibility.
  • This massage is also known to reduce inflammation and emotional stress and enhance overall wellness.

Swedish massage may help treat chronic back pain originating in the lumbosacral area (L5-S1 spinal segment).

Hot Stone Massage

A hot stone massage is a type of relaxation and healing therapy that involves placing heated basalt stones at specific locations on the body or moving them on the skin. The stones are heated by placing them in hot water.

  • For back pain, the patient lies face down. Heated stones are placed in two rows on either side of the spine, followed by a large hot stone on the sacrum (above the buttock). The number of stones used is based on the therapist’s discretion. The back of each thigh, leg, and foot is then massaged with a heated stone lubricated with massage oil.
  • The heat from the stones promotes muscle and soft tissue relaxation and reduces muscle cramps and spasms.
  • Heat therapy from the stones also improves blood flow, increases oxygen in the cells, and helps release toxins.

Hot stone massage may help loosen tight connective tissues and treat back pain from muscle strains and ligament sprains.

Yoga Massage

Also known as Thai yoga massage or Thai massage, this massage technique combines the benefits of gentle yoga stretching with massage strokes. The massage is delivered along specific energy or “sen” lines of the body.

  • For treating back pain, yoga massage aims to lengthen the back muscles, open the hips, and loosen the hamstrings. The patient performs passive yoga stretches to lengthen the lower back, while the therapist massages specific areas in the lower back and/or thigh(s) to relieve stresses and relax the tissues.
  • Yoga massage may help improve posture and alignment, and build strength in the connective tissues.
  • Joint and muscle flexibility are improved through lower back stretches and massage strokes applied at the same time.

Yoga massage may help ease back muscle stiffness and pain due to a sedentary lifestyle.

Shiatsu

Shiatsu massage is a Japanese bodywork therapy that aims to promote healing by applying deep, firm pressure along specific energy lines or meridians in the body using the fingers, thumbs, elbows, and/or knees.

  • To alleviate back pain and sciatica, massage therapists actively massage the “bladder meridian,” which extends from the top of the head to the sole of each foot, while the patient lies face-down.
  • Shiatsu provides deep tissue relaxation by improving circulation and releasing toxins.

This technique may help treat chronic back pain, back pain due to osteoarthritis, and back pain and leg pain from sciatica. The technique also provides a general feeling of wellness by improving energy (qi) balance and reducing fatigue.

Side Effects of Massage Therapy

Rarely, some individuals may experience aggravated symptoms or new symptoms after their massage session. In a study that included 100 participants, approximately 10 participants experienced short-term side effects that included some combination of:

  • Bruising
  • Headache
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Increased soreness in the massaged areas

For most people, these side effects do not affect normal activities at home and/or work and typically resolve in a day or two after the massage.

The probability of side effects after a massage typically depends on:

  • The ability of the patient to tolerate the pressure administered during the massage
  • The intensity of force exerted by the therapist
  • The patient’s tolerance to pain and bruising

Some individuals may also develop allergic rashes to the massage oil. Ongoing communication between the massage therapist and patient throughout the massage session can help reduce the risk of side effects or temporarily increased symptoms. Pain experienced during a massage should always be within tolerable limits.

When Massage Therapy Is Contraindicated

The presence of certain underlying conditions and/or the type of massage administered may cause serious adverse reactions or potential health risks to some individuals.

  • Hot stone massages may not be suitable for people who have impaired sensitivity to heat and cold, or those with inflammatory conditions, such as diabetic neuropathy, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis, due to the potential risk of aggravation of the underlying condition or burn injuries.
  • Massage therapists should not recommend massage for individuals recovering from heart conditions.
  • Massage therapists should avoid massaging individuals with metastatic cancer, especially around the area of the tumor.

While pregnant women can safely receive prenatal massage administered by a trained professional, the stimulation of certain pressure points and the use of specific essential oils may rarely induce labor.

It is important to consult a licensed and experienced massage therapist to provide treatment. A licensed therapist has special training in massage therapy and can recommend the type of massage needed for the specific type of back problem. Physical therapists and chiropractors may also have special training in massage therapy.

Neuromuscular massage therapy, also called myofascial trigger point therapy or myofascial release, is a specialized form of massage that involves the application of firm, sustained, and controlled pressure over painful, taut bands of muscle, called myofascial trigger points, to release tension and facilitate blood flow.

How Trigger Points Develop

Posterior view of the lower back with trigger points

Trigger points are taut bands of muscle tissue that are deprived of nutrients and oxygen. They are painful when pressed and may radiate pain to nearby areas, making those areas painful and potentially weak.

A trigger point causes a skeletal muscle to become tight and painful, exhibiting a local region of profound tenderness. Trigger points develop as a result of direct trauma or repetitive microtrauma due to overuse of the muscle. In the lower back, chronic repetitive microtrauma to the lower back muscles may occur due to lack of exercise, using unsupported posture, prolonged bending over a table for work, or sitting in chairs with poor back support.

Read more about Office Chairs, Posture, and Driving Ergonomics.

How Trigger Points Cause Low Back Pain

Your muscles are like long jump ropes. Sometimes tight spots form in the muscle, like knots in the rope. These knots make the jump rope shorter and harder to move.

These tight spots, called trigger points, can make your muscles sore and weak. They might cause pain all the time, or only when you move a certain way. Some knots are quiet and don’t cause pain on their own, but they can still make your muscles weak and stiff.

These knots can also send pain messages to other parts of your body, making those areas sore and weak too. So even though the knot might be in your shoulder, it could make your head hurt!

The Role of Neuromuscular Massage Therapy in Treating Trigger Point Pain

You have tight knots in your muscles that can cause pain. These knots are called trigger points. A special kind of massage called neuromuscular massage can help!

During a neuromuscular massage, the therapist will find these tight knots and gently press on them for a little while, like 30 seconds to 2 minutes. This helps the knots loosen up, kind of like softening playdough. Once the knots are looser, more blood can flow to that area. Blood brings fresh air and helps your body heal, making the pain go away. These massage therapists are like detectives! They know where to find the knots based on where you feel pain.

It is important to note that pressing a myofascial trigger point will elicit pain. It’s essential for patients to effectively communicate with their therapists if the pain is tolerable or not. The pain should fade shortly after releasing the pressure. Mild soreness may occur in the treated area for a few hours. Which topical pain medication or ice therapy may alleviate?

A therapist trained in trigger point massage can examine the muscles and evaluate the number of therapy sessions needed to improve tone, balance, and muscle strength.

Potential Long-Term Benefits of Trigger Point Therapy

Tight muscles in your back can make your back hurt. A special kind of massage called trigger point massage can help loosen up those tight muscles. This can help you stand taller and straighter. Massage therapy also helps your joints move better. A natural way to treat lower back pain, which can be used with other treatments like medicine, is active. Most patients usually tolerate massage, and it provides localized and systemic benefits, improving overall well-being and quality of life.

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