According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, lower back pain is one of the most common reasons people miss work or see a physician¹. This pain can be acute (lasting for less than three months) or chronic (lasting more than 12 weeks).
Some of the most common causes of lower back pain are injury, heavy lifting, growing older, sitting for long periods, or decreased physical activity. Health conditions, such as osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, congenital disabilities, or degenerative or ruptured discs in your spine can also cause back problems.
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There is research to support the fact that massage therapy can be used to relieve lower back pain². Therapeutic massage can be used to help in the treatment of lower back pain, providing short-term relief or even resolving mild episodes of lower back pain. Below are some potential ways massage can help relieve back pain:
Relaxes tight muscles
Improves blood circulation
Helps remove the build of pain-causing chemicals, such as lactate³ and acetylcholine
Relieves the feelings of stress and anxiety
By acting as a natural treatment instead of taking pain-killers or anti-inflammatory medications
The following are the main types of massage therapy techniques:
1. Swedish massage
This is great for those who haven’t had much experience with massage. It involves a combination of tapping, deep, circular motions, and kneading strokes of the muscles, which may be more soothing for those who are more sensitive to pressure and pain. Given the relaxing nature of the treatment, most people with lower back pain can tolerate this type of treatment. However, each massage therapist varies in their approach.
2. Deep-tissue massage
Deep-tissue massage involves applying greater pressure to the muscles when compared to the Swedish massage. The increased pressure allows the therapist to target deeper muscles and soft tissue. Those with a higher tolerance to pain may prefer this type of treatment. However, there is also a higher chance of some temporary discomfort after treatment. Given the intensity of the treatment, patients have also anecdotally reported a quicker recovery.
3. Trigger point massage
This type of massage helps relieve pain by targeting trigger points in the body. These are specific areas where the muscles are particularly tight, which can lead to pain in the rest of the body. For example, tightness in the hamstring can sometimes lead to lower back pain and stiffness.
4. Shiatsu massage
This is a Japanese massage that is inspired by traditional Chinese medicine. Therapists use their fingers, thumbs, and palms to exert pressure on specific parts of the body. These locations are called acupressure points and are based on the flow of Qi around the body.
5. Therapeutic massage
Therapeutic massage is specifically targeted towards helping relieve your pain and symptoms. Those looking for long-term relief should seek the assistance of a therapeutic massage therapist. These professional healthcare practitioners discuss your symptoms and conduct a physical assessment before the treatment. They treat specific areas of the body using a combination of the techniques above rather than a full-body massage.
Professionals that perform therapeutic massages, such as physical therapists and chiropractors, may also incorporate other strategies to help relieve your lower back pain. These include exercise, deep breathing, and lifestyle changes, among others.
Did you know that with only a few pieces of equipment, you can perform your own massage to ease lower back pain? Here is how you can do it:
Position yourself such that your back is flat on the floor and your feet are slightly apart.
Take your foam roller and position it on your mid-back, right beneath your shoulder blades.
While making sure not to exert too much pressure on your back, rock your body up and down, in and out.
If you feel the pressure of the foam roller is too much, carry your body weight through your legs more.
If this continues to be uncomfortable, please seek the assistance of a trained medical professional.
Although it’s advised to seek massage treatment from trained professionals, you can also perform some basic techniques at home. While there is a range of massage techniques, the procedure listed below is only general. It is important to remember not to apply pressure directly to the spine and only use minimal pressure to avoid causing more pain to the injured person. Use the following tips to get started:
You should first tell the person to take off their shirt or wear loose-fitting clothing that can be raised to expose the lower back for the massage.
Let the person receiving the massage lie on their stomach (or in a comfortable position) on either a table, mattress, or mat.
Roll a soft towel and place it under their forehead and even their ankles. A soft pillow can even be placed underneath the chest, if necessary.
Pour some massage oil on your hands, rub the oil evenly on your hands. Once spread evenly, perform gentle strokes around the soft tissue and muscles around the lower back.
You can then apply different techniques to massage the back. Try the following tips:
This technique feels great for larger muscle groups like the calf and hamstring. Start off by using the base of the thumb to gently grab the muscle. Knead the muscle as if you were with dough. Turn your wrist to apply pressure to the rest of the muscle belly.
Small and knotty tissues will respond well to thumb circling. Start off by finding tight bands of muscle in areas, such as the forearm or shoulder blade region. Once you find it, apply pressure with your thumb and move in circular motions over the knotted area.
While extending your arm, place one open hand on top of the other. Massage the individual using circular motions while maintaining constant pressure. This technique is more suited for long continuous muscles, such as those that run alongside your spine.
There are times when all your massage efforts might not ease the intensity of the pain. When this happens, you should seek the help of a health professional such as your doctor, a physical therapist, or a chiropractor. Your doctor can also diagnose the root cause of the problem and provide options to help manage the pain. The following are some of the common treatments your doctor may recommend for you:
Avoiding strenuous activity
Spinal manipulation for pain relief
Massage therapy is a very effective technique for relieving acute lower back pain. While we recommend that you seek a trained professional, some basic techniques can help get you started.
If you have some mild aches or are waiting for professional treatment, you can even request a loved one to help massage your achy areas. The mentioned techniques may offer you medication-free pain relief and help you maintain an active life. However, if the pain persists and interferes with your daily activities, you should discuss this with your doctor.
Low back pain fact sheet | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke