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Massage: An Alternative to Opioids


Recent scientific studies suggest that massage therapy may be a viable alternative to opioids in management of chronic pain.

The Opioid Crisis

The National Institute of Health estimates that the opioid crisis costs the US nearly $79 Billion per year in health care, lost productivity, rehab costs, and criminal justice.

The human cost, however, is just as staggering. Over 130 people day every day of an opioid overdose.

Patients are seeking massage as an alternative to opioids.
Patients are seeking massage as an alternative to opioids.

Pain is the Problem

"Pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. An estimated 50 Million Americans suffer from chronic pain, and for some 20 Million, pain significantly impacts their life."

Pain is the most common reason we access the health-care system in the US. It is the leading cause of disability and one of the major contributors to health costs.

An uncomfortable truth, though, is that pain does not always have, nor does it always need, an immediate fix.

While we do want to manage pain to allow for function and activity, some pain is to be expected at times in live and not all pain requires a pill to fix it.

Opioids and Pain Pills
Massage therapy can be an alternative to opioids.

Patient Demand for Alternatives to Opioids

Patients are demanding more comprehensive approaches to pain management that reduces or eliminates the need for prescription pain pills.

A 2019 survey conducted by the Mayo Clinic found that 94% of patients specifically requested massage as an alternative to opioids, as well as other integrative treatments.

"Suddenly, massage therapy, acupuncture, and mind-body medicine are becoming mainstream in doctors' offices and hospitals across the country."

More and more doctors are adopting a “best practice” of trying integrative therapies, such as massage, as a first step in pain management instead of immediately prescribing an opioid.

How Massage Can Be an Alternative to Opioids

While there will always be a need for strong pain medications, especially in cases of traumatic injuries and emergency room visits, other types of pain are likely better treated by holistic therapies, like massage.

Research suggests that massage therapy may provide the best long-term results for chronic back pain, neck and shoulder pain, osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia.

Low Back Pain

A recent study examining massage found that patients suffering from nonspecific low-back pain had better outcomes and improvement than those that did not receive massage. Even more promising, is that the benefits of massage lasted at least six months.

Another study of women with low back pain found that those who received massage therapy showed significant decreases in pain intensity and disability over physical therapy.

Neck Pain

Additionally, a randomized trial found that clients who received 10 massage treatments over 10 weeks scored better on the Neck Disability Index. Those who had more treatments, or longer sessions, scored even higher.

Another study found that a one-hour massage per week for 8 weeks provided better neck pain relief than usual medical care.

Non-Specific Pain

Perhaps the most promising study is one which found that massage therapy provides amazing results for patients with non-localized pain, such as those suffering from fibromyalgia.

This study found positive effects in these patients in managing all their symptoms, including pain, anxiety, and depression.

Massage is the Future of Medicine

As more research is done into pain management and holistic approaches to treatment, medical providers will begin doing a better job of educating themselves and their patients on the benefits of massage therapy.

Massage therapists should start seeing themselves as part of a managed health care team, communicating treatments and results to their client’s doctors and working more closely with them to develop treatment plans.

Some major health insurance providers have already begun covering massage therapy, and more of them will follow suit.

In 2019, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services sent communication to all Medicare Advantage programs encouraging them to cover massage as part of their non-opioid pain management benefits beginning in 2020.


Vallet M. “Promising Approaches to Pain Relief.Massage Therapy Journal. Fall 2019:31-35

Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Kahn J, Wellman R, Cook AJ, Johnson E, Erro J, Delaney K, Devo R. “A comparison of the effects of 2 types of massage and usual care on chronic low back pain: a randomized controlled trial.Ann Intern Med. 2011:155 1-9

Kamali F, Panahi F, Ebrahimi S, Abbasi L. “Comparison between massage and routine physical therapy in women with sub-acute and chronic nonspecific low back pain.J Back Musculoskelet Rehabil. 2014:27(4):475-80

Sherman KJ, Cherkin DC, Hawkes RJ, et al. “Randomized trial of therapeutic massage for chronic neck pain.Clin J Pain. 2009:25(3):233-238

Sherman KJ, Cook AJ, Wellman RD, et al. “Five-week outcomes from a dosing trial of therapeutic massage for chronic neck pain.Ann Fam Med. 2014:12(2):112-120

Perlman AI, Sabina A, Williams AL, et al. “Massage therapy for osteoarthritis of the knee: a randomized controlled trial.Arch Intern Med, 2006:166(22):2533-2538

Yuan SLK, Bersanetti AA, Marques AP. “Effects of shiatsu in the management of fibromyalgia symptoms: a controlled pilot study.J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2013:36: 436-443

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