Low-back pain (LBP) is one of the most common and costly musculoskeletal problems in modern society. Seventy to 85% of the population will experience LBP at some time in their lives. Proponents of massage therapy claim it can minimize pain and disability, and speed return to normal function.
Massage in this review is defined as soft-tissue manipulation using hands or a mechanical device on any body part. Non-specific LBP indicates that no specific cause is detectable, such as infection, neoplasm, metastasis, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, fracture, inflammatory process or radicular syndrome (pain, tingling or numbnness spreading down the leg.
Thirteen randomized trials (1596 participants) assessing various types of massage therapy for low-back pain were included in this review. Eight had a high risk and five had a low risk of bias. Massage was more likely to work when combined with exercises (usually stretching) and education. The amount of benefit was more than that achieved by joint mobilization, relaxation, physical therapy, self-care education or acupuncture. It seems that acupressure or pressure point massage techniques provide more relief than classic (Swedish) massage, although more research is needed to confirm this.
No serious adverse events were reported by any patient in the included studies. However, some patients reported soreness during or shortly after the treatment. Some patients also reported an allergic reaction (e.g. rash or pimples) to the massage oil.
In summary, massage might be beneficial for patients with subacute (lasting four to 12 weeks) and chronic (lasting longer than 12 weeks) non-specific low-back pain, especially when combined with exercises and education.