Because the value of popular forms of alternative care for chronic back pain remains uncertain, we compared the effectiveness of acupuncture, therapeutic massage, and self-care education for persistent back pain.
We randomized 262 patients aged 20 to 70 years who had persistent back pain to receive Traditional Chinese Medical acupuncture (n = 94), therapeutic massage (n = 78), or self-care educational materials (n = 90). Up to 10 massage or acupuncture visits were permitted over 10 weeks. Symptoms (0-10 scale) and dysfunction (0-23 scale) were assessed by telephone interviewers masked to treatment group. Follow-up was available for 95% of patients after 4, 10, and 52 weeks, and none withdrew for adverse effects.
Treatment groups were compared after adjustment for prerandomization covariates using an intent-to-treat analysis. At 10 weeks, massage was superior to self-care on the symptom scale (3.41 vs 4.71, respectively; P = .01) and the disability scale (5.88 vs 8.92, respectively; P<.001). Massage was also superior to acupuncture on the disability scale (5.89 vs 8.25, respectively; P = .01). After 1 year, massage was not better than self-care but was better than acupuncture (symptom scale: 3.08 vs 4.74, respectively; P = .002; dysfunction scale: 6.29 vs 8.21, respectively; P = .05). The massage group used the least medications (P<.05) and had the lowest costs of subsequent care.
Therapeutic massage was effective for persistent low back pain, apparently providing long-lasting benefits. Traditional Chinese Medical acupuncture was relatively ineffective. Massage might be an effective alternative to conventional medical care for persistent back pain.