Massage Therapy for Neck and Shoulder Pain

Massage therapy is beneficial for shoulder and neck pain, but is no more effective than other active, conservative treatments, according to a new study.

Massage therapy has long been one of the most popular alternative treatments, with ancient references to massage dating back to 2700 BC in China. Despite its popularity, few studies have examined the efficacy of massage therapy alone for neck and shoulder pain. Many studies on massage therapy (MT) included it as an adjunctive therapy in preparation for mobilization, spinal manipulation or other treatments, making it difficulty to evaluate the efficacy on its own. This has lead earlier literature reviews to suggest that there is inconclusive evidence on the MT for neck and shoulder pain.

Those literature are mostly out of date however, according to Ling Jun Kong of Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Ling and colleagues conducted an updated literature review of twelve studies on the efficacy of MT for neck and shoulder pain. The data included 757 participants from eight countries who were treated with a variety of massage therapies including traditional Thai, Chinese, and Western approaches.

When compared to inactive treatments (wait lists, standard care, or sham), massage led to significantly better outcomes in the short term for patients with neck and shoulder pain. In one study, MT patient were more than twice as likely to experience significant improvements in neck pain compared to standard-care patients ( 39% versus 14%). Although patients' pain dissipated after receiving massage, their functional status (measured by shoulder range of motion) stayed the same. Whether this would change over time is unclear, since the researchers found that there was still insufficient evident to asses the long-term effects of MT for shoulder and neck pain.

Additionally, MT was found to be more no more effective than other active treatments like acupuncture, traction, physical therapy, exercise, and activator trigger point therapy. It's possible that massage may be the most effective when combined with other active treatments like chiropractic care, however more research is needed.

Ling and colleagues concluded that massage produced meaningful short-term benefits for patients with neck and shoulder pain. They suggested that massage therapy may trigger biochemical changes that affect blood circulation, improve muscle flexibility, and loosen adherent connective tissue. These biochemical changes could play a role in mediating the body's response to pain and inflammation. For instance, earlier studies have suggested that massage is better than anti-inflammatory drugs for improving inflammation and recovery after intense exercise.


Kong, et al. Massage therapy for neck and shoulder pain: a systemic review and meta-analysis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2013; Article ID 613279.