Introduction: The last decade has seen a growth in the utilization of complementary and alternative medicine therapies, and one of the most popular and sought-after complementary and alternative medicine therapies for nonspecific low back pain is massage. Massage may often be perceived as a safe therapeutic modality without any significant risks or side effects. However, despite its popularity, there continues to be ongoing debate on the effectiveness of massage in treating nonspecific low back pain. With a rapidly evolving research evidence base and access to innovative means of synthesizing evidence, it is time to reinvestigate this issue.
Methods: A systematic, step-by-step approach, underpinned by best practice in reviewing the literature, was utilized as part of the methodology of this umbrella review. A systematic search was conducted in the following databases: Embase, MEDLINE, AMED, ICONDA, Academic Search Premier, Australia/New Zealand Reference Centre, CINAHL, HealthSource, SPORTDiscus, PubMed, The Cochrane Library, Scopus, Web of Knowledge/Web of Science, PsycINFO, and ProQuest Nursing and Allied Health Source, investigating systematic reviews and meta-analyses from January 2000 to December 2012, and restricted to English-language documents. Methodological quality of included reviews was undertaken using the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine critical appraisal tool.
Results: Nine systematic reviews were found. The methodological quality of the systematic reviews varied (from poor to excellent) although, overall, the primary research informing these systematic reviews was generally considered to be weak quality. The findings indicate that massage may be an effective treatment option when compared to placebo and some active treatment options (such as relaxation), especially in the short term. There is conflicting and contradictory findings for the effectiveness of massage therapy for the treatment of nonspecific low back pain when compared against other manual therapies (such as mobilization), standard medical care, and acupuncture.
Conclusion: There is an emerging body of evidence, albeit small, that supports the effectiveness of massage therapy for the treatment of non-specific low back pain in the short term. Due to common methodological flaws in the primary research, which informed the systematic reviews, recommendations arising from this evidence base should be interpreted with caution.
Keywords: complementary and alternative medicine; evidence-based practice; massage therapy; systematic review.