Study Finds Opioids Reduce Effectiveness of Massage

By Pat Anson, Editor

Massage therapy significantly improves chronic low back pain, but is not as effective when patients are taking opioid pain medication, according to a new study.

Nearly 100 patients with low back pain were given a series of 10 massages designed and provided by a massage therapist. Over half experienced clinically meaningful improvements in their low back pain.

"The study can give primary care providers the confidence to tell patients with chronic low back pain to try massage, if the patients can afford to do so," said lead author Niki Munk, an assistant professor of health sciences in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Most patients showed improvement in their pain and disability after 12 weeks, but the effectiveness of massage appeared to diminish after 24 weeks of therapy.

The study also identified several characteristics in patients that made them more or less likely to experience relief from massage:

  • Adults older than 49 had better pain and disability outcomes than younger adults.
  • Patients who were taking opioids were two times less likely to experience clinically meaningful change compared to those who were not taking opioids.
  • Obese patients experienced significant improvements, but those improvements were not sustained over time.

"The fact of the matter is that chronic lower back pain is very complex and often requires a maintenance-type approach versus a short-term intervention option," said Munk.

Another inhibiting factor is cost. Patients in the study were given free massages, but in the real world massage therapy is often not covered by insurance, Medicaid and Medicare. Researchers say more studies are needed to determine just how cost-effective massage is compared to other treatments,

"Massage is an out-of-pocket cost," Munk said. "Generally, people wonder if it is worth it. Will it pay to provide massage to people for an extended period of time? Will it help avoid back surgeries, for example, that may or may not have great outcomes? These are the types of analyses that we hope will result from this study."

The study was published in the journal Pain Medicine. 

Lower back pain is the world's leading cause of disability. Over 80 percent of adults have low back pain at some point in their lives.