Back pain has many possible causes, ranging from chronic muscle tension to disc problems to tumor or infection. Although some conditions are serious, requiring prompt medical treatment, a lot back pain results from stress, tension, and strain that can be helped by massage therapy.

Anatomy of the Spine

To understand some of the conditions that can lead to back pain, take a look at the anatomy of the spine. Bones called vertebrae make up the bony spinal column. The vertebrae stack on top of each other, separated by jelly-like cushions called intervertebral discs. Adjacent vertebrae are connected by ligaments at the facet joints. Plus, many muscles surround, support, and move the spine.

Holes in the vertebrae, called vertebral foramen, create the spinal canal, which houses the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a large bundle of nerves that controls the entire body. Individual nerves leave the spinal cord to travel to other parts of the body through openings in the vertebrae called intervertebral foramen.

Just a few of the more common things that can happen in the spine that can cause pain and other back problems include:

Massage for Back Pain

Although massage is not appropriate in some circumstances, such as tumor, infection, or stress fracture, a lot of back pain is due stress, tension, strain, sprain, and other factors that massage therapy can help.

Muscle tension is a part of most back pain. Even with other factors involved, relieving muscle tension and balancing the muscles around the spine can help relieve pain. Massage can also improve blood circulation, which helps the body in self-healing, and increase the level of endorphins, natural pain-relieving chemicals produced by the body.

The type of massage that works best for pain depends on the underlying cause and the skill of the massage therapist. If stress and muscle tension are the main problems, basic Swedish massage can help release tension. Adding essential oils for an aromatherapy massage can provide even more relaxing benefits.

However, often more specific massage techniques are needed. For example, deep tissue massage targets problems in the deeper muscles around the spine. Another type of deep massage, which uses negative pressure rather than deep pressure, is cupping massage, a technique adapted from Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Cupping massage uses cups that create suction and lift muscle tissue rather than compressing it. Some massage therapists use fire-cupping, removing the air from a cup using a flame and then placing the cup on a person’s body. Other therapists use a manual vacuum set, placing a cup on the body and removing the air from with an attached pump. The therapist then moves the cups to perform massage strokes.

Another massage technique for back pain is myofascial release. Fascia is connective tissue that covers muscles and most other internal bodily structures. Myofascia refers to the combination of muscle and fascia. Myofascial release applies gentle sustained pressure to restrictions in the myofascia to eliminate pain and restore motion.

Trigger Points in Back Pain

Sometimes the location of the pain is not the source of the pain. Trigger points are small, irritable spots in the muscles that cause pain in other areas. For example, trigger points in the abdominal muscles can cause low back pain, and trigger points in one part of the back can cause pain in another part of the back.

Two common massage approaches to get rid of trigger points are neuromuscular therapy and trigger point therapy. Each therapy has its specific methods, but the basic technique is either to apply direct pressure to the trigger points for as long as 30 to 60 seconds or to use short, deep “stripping” strokes over the trigger points.


As long as you are sure that the cause of your pain is not a condition, such as tumor, infection, or stress fracture, that makes massage inadvisable, working with a skilled massage therapist can help bring relief. Ask about the massage therapist’s experience and approach in working with back pain.