Massage is Better, But Somatics is Best for Chronic Back Pain Relief

A new study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, and funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, concludes that,

"Massage therapy may be better than medication or exercise for easing low back pain in the short term."

The researchers found that, when used to treat low back pain, massage therapy was superior to painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants, and physical therapy. In Sweden, however, a recent study found the Sensory Motor Learning, which is another term for Somatic Education, is even better for back pain. This study concluded that it is a superior "evidence-based" treatment for back pain.

In light of NHI's conclusion that massage therapy is superior to standard medical practice, in addition to the Swedish study, I'd say that it's time for a rigorous clinical study on Somatic Education.

Eliminate pain for the long-term.

If passive massage therapy is effective in alleviating the symptoms of back pain and allowing one to continue to be active, then it would stand to reason that an active modality that engages the client in changing the state of their own muscles, would work even better.

I've been a massage therapist for 25 years.  I still give massages, but I let people know that if their pain is chronic (and not just a need for stress reduction), they will get more out of Somatics than out of massage. Once they learn to reverse their pain, they enjoy their massage much more!

Most massage therapists are well trained and certainly well-intentioned.  But even massage therapy doesn't get to the root of why we develop back pain, and how to address it so that people learn to eliminate it.  Chronically tight muscles that are "on" 24/7 have learned to stay contracted (this is what Somatic Educators call Sensory Motor Amnesia), and no amount of kneading, pounding, or passive stretching will change that situation until the brain gives the muscles a signal to relax. That can only come from the client on the table!

Hanna Somatics doesn't just teach people how to reverse their chronic muscle pain. It also teaches them to improve their posture, and improve their flexibility without painful stretching. You also learn to become aware of your movement habits, which helps you regain mastery over your movement in order to prevent injury or recurrence of your pain.

There are a lot of benefits of massage: increased lymph circulation, increased oxygenation of the tissues, and reduction of anxiety are among the benefits. Massage therapy gives you an opportunity to relax, stop moving, stop thinking, and let go. This is why it's so pleasant. It's a mini-vacation. There are no full body brain stem reflexes being invoked while getting a massage (we hope!), so the constant "looping" of brain to muscle "contract" messages takes a break for just a short while.

But because no reeducating of muscles takes place during a massage, the benefit is short-lived. Those in pain who are looking for hard answers and sensible solutions to back pain - and who don't have the money for a weekly massage - can grow frustrated with the need to rely on someone else to alleviate their symptoms.

I welcome a study that compares current medical protocols, massage therapy and Somatic Education. Let's compare, for instance, Hanna Somatic Education, the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, physical therapy, massage therapy, Rolfing, and Pilates (these seem to be the most common "alternative methods" for pain relief) and see which method confers the most benefit for the fewest dollars across the board. It'd be a huge study, but one that would be worth the effort.