Q. Is massage always helpful for pain conditions? Can it be harmful?
A. Research has supported what many massage recipients feel: Therapeutic massage can have positive effects on many kinds of pain. A 2011 randomized controlled clinical trial published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, for instance, found that both structural and relaxation styles of massage helped ease pain and improve function in patients with chronic low back pain, and studies have found massage can improve pain caused by muscle soreness, cancer treatment, major surgery, and tension headaches.
It’s still an open question to what extent these benefits are from direct effects on muscle tissue, or more systemic effects like stress reduction. Karis Antokal, a licensed massage therapist with the Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, says that massage also seems to alter how patients experience pain by focusing attention on physical sensations. “Patients have a different perception of pain,” she says.
Antokal says that massage focuses on the soft tissues, so it can be particularly helpful in chronic back and neck pain where muscles are tight. But it can sometimes help patients with joint or nerve pain by easing muscle tension around the locus of pain.
It’s important to see a doctor to understand the source of pain, because massage may not address the root cause — it can ease back tension but won’t cure a slipped disc. Antokal says that massage could be harmful if performed improperly or without taking injuries into account, so work with a licensed massage therapist who knows your medical condition and history.