No More Pain?

Patients are in search of alternatives to medication for chronic pain relief. Massage therapy may hold the key

For decades—centuries, perhaps—chronic pain sufferers have been in search of something to alleviate their symptoms. Some have found solace in exercise—until it becomes too painful to continue. Others utilize medications, but the dangers and stigmata surrounding painkillers make this option less than ideal for many in the 21st century.

Luckily, the emergence of massage therapy in recent years offers people with chronic pain yet another option. An increasing amount of research supports massage as an approach with beneficial outcomes for some people with chronic pain. Could it be the answer for your patients?

What is Chronic Pain?

The Institute for Chronic Pain defines the condition as pain originating from an injury or illness that persists for greater than six months. Subsequently, chronic pain syndrome develops when secondary complications (caused by the pain) combined with the existing chronic pain to, in turn, make the pain worse.

Sound confusing? You’re not alone. A 2015 release from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health found that over 25 million U.S. adults experience chronic pain—defined as some level of pain every day for the past three months.

What are these secondary complications? One example: the pain keeps a person awake at night, affecting their performance at work and wearing on their patience. Eventually, they’re so tired they stop working altogether, leading to feelings of guilt for leaving their spouse or families in a tough spot, or anxiety, depression or other mental factors over the added stress of being jobless.

That’s just one hypothetical example—the real-life examples are as numerous and as different as the people experiencing the situations. But is there hope within the art of massage?

Massage Therapy

The average person’s idea of massage probably involves lying comfortably on a table in a tropical, outdoor setting or perhaps an indoor setting in a spa or lounge environment of some sort. In other words, they picture a luxurious atmosphere with posh surroundings, and a half-hour or hour-long session of relaxation and enjoyment.

It’s not that this idea is incorrect—massage can be relaxing, it can certainly be enjoyable, and it can be entirely appropriate to give as a gift or just to treat yourself. But what’s missing from the above description is the tangible effects massage can have for individuals in need of medical intervention, including pain relief.

Recent attention has turned to the importance of finding non-opioid means of managing pain, and to that end, the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) has joined up with a number of governmental agencies and other organizations in an attempt to find alternative means of pain management. Last fall, an AMTA representative met with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the important role massage therapy can play in pain management.

In February, the following message appeared on the AMTA web site:

The new FDA guidelines released this week call on health care providers to be informed on the range of therapeutic options for managing pain, including non-pharmacologic approaches and therapies. While the FDA is not specific about these approaches, the National Institutes of Health has for several years included massage therapy among its list of complementary therapies.

Over the past year, the AMTA has done extensive work with regard to establishing massage therapy as a preferable approach to opioids:

  • Last month, AMTA representatives met with staff at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The meeting focused on the necessity of increasing the amount of massage therapy research
  • In late 2017 and early 2018, AMTA provided detailed information on the efficacy of massage therapy for pain to the U.S. House of Representatives Ways & Means Committee and its Energy & Commerce Committee, as they prepare for hearings related to the opioid crisis
  • In December 2017, AMTA submitted recommendations to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (an agency of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services) for inclusion of research on massage therapy for chronic pain, to be included in their analysis and recommendations for non-pharmacologic approaches

In addition, AMTA worked directly with the office of the West Virginia Attorney General for a program aimed at reduction of opioid usage in pain management. AMTA also connected the officials in West Virginia with researchers in the state of Kentucky working on the same subject. An ongoing relationship between AMTA and researchers at the University of Kentucky has been instrumental in arranging educational roundtables in both states. The results of studies that stemmed from those discussions are available on the University of Kentucky’s website.

Lastly, this National Institutes of Health release indicates that pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. In response, AMTA has released details on research supporting the role of massage therapy in relieving pain from five conditions, including:

  • Low-back pain
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Post-operative pain
  • Tension headaches
  • Arthritis

Check back next week for part two—the research behind using massage therapy to relieve pain from the above-mentioned conditions and others.

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