Neck pain is an incredibly common problem: it affects between a third and half of the population and accounts for over 10 million doctors visits each year. It’s also the eighth leading cause of disability in the U.S., so its effects are also economic.
Treating neck pain can be challenging, particularly if there’s no clear underlying cause. Stress or muscle strain are often the culprit, and they can be ongoing. If you use pain medications, which may help the problem temporarily, remember they have some risks.
Now a new study finds that massage can be a good way to relieve neck pain, if it's done enough.
Massage therapy has long been a promising solution for neck pain, but it has been difficult to determine the effective “dose.” So a research team set out to answer this question.
It may often be the case that massage treatments do not help neck pain simply because they’re not long enough.
Five groups of volunteers who suffered from chronic neck pain received various amounts of massage every week for four weeks. Another group received no massage and served as the control.
The first group had 30 minutes once a week, and the second had 30-minute massages twice a week. The other three groups had 60-minute massages either once, twice, or three times weekly. At the beginning and the end of the experiment, the participants were asked questions about their level of neck pain.
The researchers report that people in the 30-minute-massage-once-a-week group experienced no more pain relief than those people who were in the control group and received no massage. But those volunteers who got the 60-minute massages either two or three times per week reported significantly improved levels of pain after the treatments, compared to people in the control group.
The findings suggest that when massage treatments do not help neck pain, it may be because they’re not long enough. “If you are going to try massage,” study author Karen Sherman tells TheDoctor, “make sure you get several 60-minute massages per week when you start treatment.”
Dr. Sherman suggests that it's a good idea to avoid future strain on the neck. She recommends that neck pain sufferers “use the opportunity to start a program that includes neck exercises,” as they will help manage pain and prevent further injury.
As to whether massage is more effective than painkillers or NSAIDs for neck pain, it’s hard to tell. The study did not compare medicine to massage, but since there can be some side effects even with over-the-counter medications over the long term, it might be a good idea to start with massage, if you can.
Keep in mind that massage isn’t necessarily effective for those with severe neck problems. “[O]ur study focused on people without a known pathophysiological cause to their neck pain (which is most folks), so we cannot say anything about its value for…other specific problems,” Sherman said.
The researchers also don’t know how long the effect might last after the initial four weeks, but presumably you'll need a follow-up massage to maintain its effectiveness.
Massage therapy can be pricey, especially it it’s done two or three times per week for 60-minutes. Some insurance plans cover it or offer partial coverage if it is prescribed as a medical treatment. The hope is that studies like this one will make it more likely massage will be covered.
Speak with your doctor (and your insurer) if you’re a neck pain sufferer and discuss whether massage might be a treatment worth trying.
Sherman is a researcher at the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle, and published in Annals of Family Medicine.