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Massage & Bodywork Therapy for Back Pain

Sharon Leake

Low back pain effects more than 80% of the population at some point in their lives and is one of the main reasons people seek medical attention in the U.S. That's pretty significant, especially when you factor in medical expenses and missed work. Massage-vs-medical-care

Studies show that very few medical treatments (medications, injections, surgeries) reliably relieve back pain, and some may actually aggravate it. I plan to blog more on that subject later... Back pain is considered to be the most over treated ailment in American medicine.

A 2011 study randomly assigned 400 adults with moderate-severe low back pain, lasting more than 3 months, to either a weekly whole body relaxation massage, a more targeted deep tissue massage, or the usual medical care (which could include seeing doctors, chiropractors, physical therapy, pain drugs & muscle relaxants or doing nothing).

After 10 weeks, participants in both massage groups reported greater improvements in pain and functioning compared to those in the usual care group.

A study on massage and back pain conducted at the Touch Research Institute found that: "Massage lessened back pain, depression and anxiety, and improved sleep. The massage therapy group also showed improved range of motion and their serotonin and dopamine levels were higher." Massage & Bodywork therapy is non-invasive and very low risk. Massage increases circulation, which brings much needed nutrition to muscles and tissues enabling recovery from physical activity or injury. The relaxation benefits that you receive from massage can improve flexibility, reduce pain and even improve your quality of regenerative sleep. Increased endorphins (another massage perk) can ease depression and anxiety, which can also reduce pain and help speed up recovery.

From personal experience, I find yoga and Pilate's exercises to also be of great benefit for back pain relief. The eccentric contractions and lengthening postures added to the core strengthening regime equals the perfect low-impact stabilizing workout for back pain sufferers. From hamstring stretches, back extensions to abdominal toning, Pilate's and yoga cover it all without putting stress on your joints. Cycling or elliptical added to the routine make a great well-rounded plan. Massage & Bodywork therapy should be an ancillary modality added to your wellness regimen.

Just a few of the major players contributing to low-back pain:

  • The quadratus lumborum connects the bottom rib to the posterior ilium and is very important for pelvic stability and structural alignment. I often find that neuromuscular therapy and muscle energy techniques on this muscle alone can often alleviate a lot of my clients lower back pain.

The QL can become hyperirritable when the lower body is engaged while the upper body is still. Examples include: Lifting objects that require you to lean over, slumping at your desk, or leaning over while washing dishes or folding clothes. Running on uneven terrain is another activity that your QL hates. Some of the hyperirritable (trigger point) spots along the QL are amongst the most painful for me to have worked on, but the relief that floods in once these areas have been treated is well worth the temporary discomfort.

  • The gluteus medius is another common culprit contributing to low-back pain. The gluteus medius will often try to compensate for pelvic instability, or lateral pelvic tilt, when the QL is unilaterally hypertonic. When I was in massage school one of my biggest complaints was low-back pain. After we had our class on glutes, and I learned the pain-referral patterns from the gluteus medius, a light bulb went off. Voila, I finally knew what was causing my low-back pain! After trades that afternoon I felt great, no more low-back pain. I thought I had just found the holy grail of massage.

Tight hamstrings can pull down on the ischium, throwing your pelvis out of proper alignment and thus creating a posterior pelvic-tilt. The piriformis, located in the buttock region, can irritate the sciatic nerve and cause pain. The gluteus maximus and minimus may  have trigger points that contribute to pain in the buttock/sacral region or lower extremity. And last on my short list, but definitely not least, is the iliopsoas. This muscle can also cause pain in the lower torso/lumbar region and should be inspected when low-back pain is a complaint.


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