MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
Lower back pain is second only to cold symptoms in complaints that send people to the doctor. Physicians often prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs or physical therapy. But here's one solution that hasn't been researched widely: massage.
Today, the Annals of Internal Medicine released the largest study yet on massage.
As NPR's Patti Neighmond reports, the study found that it's just as effective for lower back pain as more common treatments.
PATTI NEIGHMOND: Peggy O'Brien-Murphy tried just about everything to get rid of the pain in her lower back. What really worked was something that she got in a quiet, peaceful room with massage therapist Loretta Lanz.
Ms. LORETTA LANZ (Massage Therapist): Right now, I'm going to be adjusting your hips by doing a pull from the ankles. How does that feel?
Ms. PEGGY O'BRIEN-MURPHY: Feels good.
NEIGHMOND: Lanz wants to know if her patient's hips, legs or back muscles are tight. She places one hand on the hip, the other on the back, and then begins to gently rock O'Brien-Murphy back and forth.
Ms. LANZ: This motion is part of a relaxation motion, jostling and rocking. And at the same time, I'm also using my fingertips to see what muscles may be tight.
NEIGHMOND: O'Brien-Murphy is in her late 60s, a retired state employee whose back pain was so severe at one point, she could hardly get out of a chair.
Ms. O'BRIEN-MURPHY: It was really bad. In fact, I was pulling myself up the stairs by the banister.
NEIGHMOND: It was difficult getting into the car. And she could no longer walk the hills where she lives. So when she came upon an ad in her HMO's newsletter, Group Health Cooperative in Seattle, she jumped at the chance to take part in a massage study.
Her sessions with therapist Lanz made her feel better right away.
Ms. O'BRIEN-MURPHY: When I would leave her office, I just felt like I could stand straighter, the hip didn't hurt as much, and I could move more easily. And it felt good.
NEIGHMOND: And it was the same story for many of the people who took part in the study.
Epidemiologist Daniel Cherkin divided participants into three groups: full-body relaxation massage; targeted deep tissue massage; or medication and physical therapy. After 10 weeks, results were dramatic: two-thirds of the patients in the massage groups said their back pain significantly improved or went away altogether, compared to only one-third of patients in the group that used medication.
Cherkin says massage relieved the pain for six months or more.
Dr. DANIEL CHERKIN (Epidemiologist, Group Health Research Institute): We found that both types of massage were equally effective in helping people improve their function and diminish their symptoms.
NEIGHMOND: Dr. Richard Deyo of Oregon Health Sciences University says no one knows exactly how massage works to relieve pain.
Dr. RICHARD DEYO (Oregon Health Sciences University): It may be that it helps with relaxation of muscles that are tense. But it may also be that there are simply more generalized effects of relaxation - in the caring and attention and someone laying hands on - that may all be important.
NEIGHMOND: For O'Brien-Murphy, the experience was life-changing.
Ms. O'BRIEN-MURPHY: Oh, I've got a spring to my walk and some energy in it. You bet. And I've been to China and we walked all over. And, oh, I am so lucky.
NEIGHMOND: But now, O'Brien-Murphy works hard to prevent a recurrence. Other studies have shown that building strong and flexible muscles can help prevent back pain. O'Brien-Murphy never exercised before. But now she does weight training, muscle stretches and aerobic exercise.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.