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Lifescript.com—June 24, 2012
One of the best treatments for lower back pain may be one you instinctively crave: a relaxing massage.
A trained, experienced massage therapist evaluates your back differently than a doctor or physical therapist does.
“A massage therapist's significant experience with hands-on care [allows] her to perform a manual assessment of the soft tissues,” which can add to the information your doctor has gathered, says Paul Cooke, M.D., a physiatrist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
Find out how to incorporate massage into your back pain treatment with these expert tips.
1. How does massage treatment help relieve back pain?
Each time you strain or pull a muscle, small tears form in the muscle fibers, says Davis Reyes, a physical therapist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
When they heal, scar tissue forms in hard lines and doesn’t necessarily conform to the existing muscle. These can interfere with muscle function, and massage can remedy that, he says.
“Massage works on these soft-tissue injuries to actually work out that scar,” Reyes adds.
This helps the muscles work more efficiently and can improve the success of strengthening or stretching routines.
2. How should I choose a massage therapist?
First, ask for referrals from your doctor or physical therapist. Then check online resources, such as the American Massage Therapy Association.
Checking qualifications can be tricky because licensing requirements vary by state – and some, such as Minnesota, Oklahoma, Kansas, Idaho and Wyoming, have no requirements. Most licensed massage therapists have at least one year of formal training, chiropractor Schneider says.
But more important is how therapists respond to patients, and the best way to assess that is to ask your friends and family for referrals, he adds.
If possible, find someone skilled in a variety of techniques who can tailor their approach to your needs.
“Many massage therapists today don’t stick to just one approach,” Reyes says. “They use a combination of approaches based on your situation.”
4. How often should I get a massage treatment?
If your injury is relatively new and confined to one area of the back, you may find that massage helps relieve back pain in 2-3 sessions, Reyes says.
But if your pain has lasted longer and is more widespread, it can take as many as four weeks to see a benefit.
If you don’t see results after several sessions, visit a doctor to determine if an underlying condition – such as a herniated disc or arthritis – is causing your pain.
Also, visit your doctor if you develop any nerve symptoms, such as pain radiating down your arm or leg, numbness or tingling. That could indicate a more serious problem, such as a herniated disc impinging on a nerve.
6. How can I prolong the effects of massage treatment?
Most therapists tell you to drink lots of water after a massage – and doctors agree. “When your massage therapist releases a knot in the muscle, pockets of lactic acid are released,” causing discomfort, Reyes says. “Drinking water helps flush the lactic acid out of your muscles more efficiently.”
It’s important to stretch those muscles to keep them flexible. As you start to feel better, add some simple strengthening exercises to prevent re-injury.
Ask a doctor or physical therapist to recommend stretches and exercises best for your situation. Your massage therapist may suggest some stretches and exercises too.
Stretching is especially important for women in their 50s.
“As we get older, our chest, hamstrings and hip flexors become very tight,” Reyes explains. “This can cause neck or low back pain. Keeping those muscles flexible can help prevent this.”
7. Is massage treatment covered by insurance?
Some health insurance plans cover massage, usually under a doctor’s orders. Check with your provider.
If it doesn’t, here are some money-saving tips:
Call local massage schools to see if they offer low-cost massage treatment, Reyes advises. “To graduate, students need to practice,” he says. “Schools will often offer free or low-cost clinics to give their students experience.”
Read all of the expert tips at lifescript.com.