Massage Therapy for Back and Neck Pain

Back or neck pain can disrupt your day and affect your performance or ability to focus. With time, pain may improve on its own, but ignoring the discomfort can be difficult and may worsen the problem.

Some people turn to massage therapy to ease the pain. But before you try it, here's what you need to know:

Woman getting back and neck massage
 Erik Leonsson / Getty Images

The Research on Massage for Back Pain: Can It Help?

There is evidence supporting the use of massage therapy for pain relief, particularly in the short-term. In a review study published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, for instance, scientists analyzed 25 previously published studies on the use of massage for low back pain and found that massage was better at reducing sub-acute and chronic back pain (but not acute back pain) and improving function in the short-term, compared to an inactive treatment.

Compared to other treatments thought to be beneficial, massage was found to be better for pain in the both the short- and long-term, but did not improve function. The researchers also noted that the most common adverse event was increased pain in 1.5% to 25% of participants.

Another review, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2017, examined previously published trials on massage for acute or chronic low back pain. In eight out of nine trials, massage was more effective than other interventions such as exercise, relaxation therapy, acupuncture, physiotherapy, and manipulation.

Types of Massage for Back or Neck Pain

There are several types of massage often used for back or neck pain. Swedish massage is the most common type of massage in the United States. Also known simply as massage therapy, Swedish massage involves the use of long, smooth strokes using oil or lotion. People who have never had ​a massage often start with Swedish massage.

Deep tissue massage targets the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue. This type of massage is used for chronically tight or painful muscles, postural problems, and repetitive strain.

There may be some level of physical discomfort during a deep tissue massage, as the massage therapist works on the deeper muscle layers. People may feel sore after the massage.

Another option is shiatsu, a form of Japanese bodywork. Clothing is usually worn during the shiatsu treatment, so it is a good treatment if someone prefers to remain fully clothed.

The therapist applies localized finger pressure to points on the body. Since the pressure is localized, the pressure of shiatsu feels deep.

Although it's no substitute for a massage by a trained therapist, in some cases a massage cushion may be worth considering. They fit on many desk chairs or can be placed on a sofa. Stores often have floor models to try.

If you have insurance coverage for massage therapy, find out what type of massage is covered.

When to See Your Healthcare Provider

Consult your primary care provider about your back pain, if you haven't already. You should also seek medical attention if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Persistent back pain
  • Back pain that awakens you in the night
  • Changes in bowel or bladder function
  • Numbness, weakness, or pain around the genitals, arms, or legs
  • Fever, chills, sweats
  • Any other unusual or new symptoms

Before starting any new therapy, including massage therapy, talk with your healthcare provider to be sure that it's appropriate for you.

A Word From Verywell

If you have back or neck pain, your healthcare provider may suggest non-drug therapies. There's some evidence that massage may provide short-term pain relief, although evidence from larger-scale clinical trials is needed.

Other evidence-based measures to consider include exercise, hot and/or cold packs, mindfulness-based stress reduction, progressive muscle relaxation, spinal manipulation, acupuncture, and cognitive behavioral therapy.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Farber K, Wieland LS. Massage for low-back pain. Explore (NY). 2016;12(3):215-7. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD001929.pub3

  2. Chou R, Deyo R, Friedly J, et al. Nonpharmacologic therapies for low back pain: A systematic review for an american college of physicians clinical practice guideline. Ann Intern Med. 2017;166(7):493-505. doi:10.7326/M16-2459

  3. Duke Health. When can a doctor help your back pain? Updated June 28, 2017.

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