Back on Track
Massage therapy can help manage chronic back pain
WE'VE ALL SUFFERED the soreness associated with an
overly exuberant exercise session. But did you know that most
Americans experience pain from another less-strenuous activity?
Surprisingly, it's sitting.
Chronic back pain, which is the second most common cause of
disability and a top reason for missing work, can be the result of
improper posture while sitting and standing.
Back pain also can be caused by being overweight or inactive,
says Michael McGillicuddy, owner of USA ProSports and the Central
Florida School of Massage Therapy. "More than 60 percent of
Americans are overweight and a lot of back pain comes from people
being overweight," McGillicuddy says. Carrying extra weight, poor
posture, and repetitive or overuse movements all can put strain on
the low back, as can sleeping on a bad mattress and using a
workstation that isn't set up ergonomically. The pain you feel is
caused by localized ischemic muscle tissue. That basically means
that the muscle is in spasm and isn't getting enough blood flow,
which decreases flexibility and mobility.
"The combination of extra weight and weak abdominals causes the
pelvis to tilt forward, which is what often leads to low back
pain," explains Jeffrey Forman, Ph.D., program coordinator of the
massage therapy program at DeAnza College in Cupertino, Calif. He
cites other muscle imbalances that can play a role in back pain,
including weak gluteus maximus muscles as well as tight hip
flexors, hamstrings and low back muscles. "You really have to do
exercises and stretches to work on these muscles," he says, but
cautions that doing the right exercises is essential. "Something
like straight-leg sit-ups can actually aggravate your pain."
Trip Your Trigger
What happens next is known as the pain-spasm-pain cycle. Those
muscles trigger the brain to send them into spasm and lock them
down to-theoretically- stop the pain. But the spasm causes more
pain, which, you guessed it, convinces the brain to send the
muscles into spasm. And, as it turns out, the brain isn't terribly
accurate, McGillicuddy says. "Your brain doesn't turn off specific
muscles. So you're also going to feel tightening and pain in your
upper back, your hips, your glutes and your hamstrings. Your brain
is trying to make all those muscles and joints not move."
Massage gets to the root of the pain by relaxing those tight
muscles and addressing trigger
points to put a stop to the pain cycle. Massage also increases
blood flow to the affected muscles, which brings in healing oxygen
and nutrients, and helps remove the waste products of cellular
metabolism. All of this activity reduces swelling and stiffness and
increases flexibility to help eliminate pain.
Massage therapy also releases endorphins and boosts your levels
of serotonin and dopamine, all hormones your body produces to help
you feel good, promote healing and pain management, and calm the
nerves sending those cyclical pain signals.
From the Brain to the Back
According to a 2001 study by the Touch Research Institute at the
University of Miami (TRI), massage helps with chronic back pain in
other ways by positively affecting other contributing factors, such
- Depression and anxiety
- Sleep problems
- Range of motion
With benefits like that, it's easy to see why Forman considers
massage essential food for the body. "You should have one at least
once a week."
If you've been experiencing back pain for three weeks or more,
it would be wise to consult your doctor for a complete
-By Jenn Woolson