Six months out, both types of massage were still linked to improved function, Cherkin said, but after one year, pain and function was almost equal in all three groups.
Noting that most Americans will experience low back pain during their lifetime, Cherkin said another benefit of massage is its relative safety.
"Maybe one of 10 patients felt pain during or after massage, but most of those thought it was a 'good pain,'" he said. "A good massage therapist will be in tune with the patient and will ask what hurts."
One of the study's weaknesses was that those who were assigned to usual care knew that others were receiving massage therapy and may have been disappointed to be excluded, tainting their reported improvement, said Dr. Robert Duarte, director of the Pain and Headache Treatment Center at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Manhasset, N.Y.
"I think massage therapy can be useful for patients with back pain, but more as a . . . supplemental therapy," Duarte added.
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more on low back pain.
SOURCES: Daniel Cherkin, Ph.D., director, Group Health Research Institute, Seattle; Robert Duarte, M.D., director, Pain and Headache Treatment Center, North Shore-LIJ Health System, Manhasset, N.Y.; July 5, 2011, Annals of Internal Medicine
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