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Massage Today
February, 2007, Vol. 07, Issue 02

Making a Statement About Massage

AMTA advocates consensus conference; ultimate goal is a federal statement declaring that massage provides effective relief of low back pain.

By Meghan Vivo, Associate Editor

The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) recently approved financial support for the Integrative Healthcare Policy Consortium (IHPC) to propose that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) hold a consensus conference on massage for low back pain.

The IHPC is a coalition of health care professional organizations advocating public policy to ensure access to safe, high-quality medical care for all Americans. The latest survey from the AMTA provides evidence of the increasing popularity of massage for therapeutic purposes and suggests the tides may be changing in favor of insurance coverage for massage.

Massage has been credited with alleviating a wide variety of aches and pains, from migraines and carpal tunnel to anxiety and low back pain. More than 100 million Americans suffer from low back pain, and nearly $25 billion a year is spent in search of relief. In the Centers for Disease Control's 30th annual report on the health status of the nation, Health, United States, 2006, low back pain was the most commonly reported type of pain, the most common cause of job-related disability, and a leading contributor to missed work and reduced productivity.

Medication may still be the most common way to treat low back pain, but increasing evidence suggests it is neither the most effective nor the safest treatment method. The need for more effective solutions to low back pain has led many health care organizations to increase research for alternative treatments such as massage therapy. Although many Gen X and Gen Yers believe massage is not only a luxury, but also a medical necessity, Medicare and Medicaid have not yet supported insurance coverage for massage as a remedy for low back pain. In fact, most existing research ignores massage therapy as a treatment for low back pain altogether, instead focusing on drug therapies and surgery.

With the NIH consensus conference expected to occur in 18 to 24 months, the AMTA hopes to elicit a federal statement declaring that massage is effective for low back pain. Historically, the conference panel's findings have triggered Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement policies which, in turn, have expanded insurance coverage policies. If the conference goal is reached, the AMTA anticipates that massage for low back pain will be widely accepted by the health care community.

The NIH's previous consensus development conference on treatments for low back pain occurred more than 10 years ago. Although the expert panel at the conference concluded that research supported the use of chiropractic care for low back pain, it ultimately decided that too little evidence existed to assess the actual benefits of massage. Similarly, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports that the best treatments for low back pain include bed rest, exercise and various medications, such as over-the-counter analgesics, anticonvulsants, opioids and some antidepressants - with no mention of massage therapy.

More recently, however, a number of studies have indicated that massage is highly beneficial for people with chronic low back pain. For example, a 2003 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that massage therapy produced better results and reduced the need for painkillers by 36 percent when compared to other therapies, including acupuncture and spinal modification. And with 39 million American adults getting a massage annually, and 30 percent of those adults using massage therapy for medical purposes, recent AMTA consumer surveys continue to show that massage therapy is a growing trend.

As evidence that massage therapy is increasingly on the minds of the public, the AMTA reports that 9 million more people discussed massage therapy with their health care provider in 2006 than in 2001. Moreover, almost twice as many doctors recommended massage therapy to their patients in 2006 than in 2001. When patients inquire about massage therapy, physicians are more likely to recommend it (59 percent), while nearly half of all chiropractors (48 percent) and physical therapists (47 percent) also recommended massage. And nearly 80 percent of 25- to 35-year-olds would like to have their insurance plan cover massage.

Despite lingering pessimism from some in the conventional medical community, an impressive 25 million more Americans each year are getting a massage today than they did 10 years ago, according to the 2006 AMTA study. People 55 years old and up have tripled their use of massage over the past 10 years. Gen Yers have become less reliant on medication to treat low back pain, with 94 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds preferring massage therapy for pain relief.

Today, massage therapy is one of the most common ways people relieve back pain. Research is increasingly showing that millions of Americans regularly use complementary and alternative health care approaches. Because most of this complementary care is paid for by the patients themselves, without any assistance from Medicare or other forms of insurance, it is not accessible to all Americans. Only those who can afford the out-of-pocket costs have access to broader choices in their health care. Massage patients, massage therapists and affiliated health care organizations remain hopeful that the NIH consensus conference will convince the health care community and insurance providers of the benefits of massage therapy - a treatment that already provides much needed relief to millions of Americans.

Editor's Note: In September of 2006, the Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals also pledged $15,000 in an effort to help gain medical recognition of massage therapy as a treatment for low back pain. The ABMP contribution accounts for about one quarter of the funds needed to advance a review under the auspices of the NIH, Office of Medical Applications of Research. Visit for more information.


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