Along with herbal treatment, touch-based therapy is easily one of the most ancient forms of medical care. We instinctively stroke and rub areas of our body that hurt. Massage therapy develops this instinct into a professional treatment. There are many schools of massage. In most cases, massage therapists combine several techniques, but there are purists who stick to one method. The one of the most common techniques is Swedish massage, which combines long strokes and gentle kneading movements that primarily affect surface muscle tissues. Deep-tissue massage utilizes greater pressure to reach deeper levels of muscles. Shiatsu or acupressure massage also use deep pressure, but they do so according to the principles of acupuncture theory. This can differ markedly from those of Western-oriented massage therapies. Neuromuscular massage applies strong pressure to tender spots, technically known as trigger points.
Although there is some evidence that massage may be helpful for various medical purposes, in general, the evidence is not strong. There are several reasons for this, but the main obstacle is that it is difficult to truly determine the effectiveness of a hands-on therapy like massage.
Because of this obstacle, all studies of massage fall short. Many researchers have designed studies that compare massage to no treatment. However, studies of this type cannot provide reliable evidence about the effect of a treatment. If a benefit is seen, there is no way to determine whether it was caused by massage specifically, or just attention generally. (Attention alone will almost always produce some reported benefit.) More meaningful trials used some sort of placebo treatment for the control group, referred to as “sham” massage. However, using a placebo treatment that is very different in form from the treatment under study is less than ideal.
Still other studies have simply involved giving people massages and seeing whether they improved. These trials are particularly meaningless. It is well-known that if a treatment of any kind is given, participants will think they have observed an improvement, regardless of whether or not the treatment does anything on its own. This is known as the placebo effect.
Given these cautions, below is a summary of what is known about the effects of massage. The best evidence regards low back pain.
Last reviewedMay 2012by Peter J. Lucas, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.