Chronic neck and back pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical care in the United States.

It accounts for a large percentage of health care dollars: In 2005, we spent close to $90 billion on medical procedures, imaging studies and medications for neck and back pain. That’s up from $52 billion in 1997.

Still, the percentage of people with neck and back pain continues to escalate, and so does the cost. So, it behooves us to keep looking for other ways to treat and manage chronic pain:

Massage therapy holds promise as an alternative treatment for low back pain. In fact, a review in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2003 suggested that massage therapy was superior to both chiropractic manipulation and acupuncture in relieving pain for people with persistent nonspecific back pain (back pain that was not due to a disc rupture, spinal stenosis or similar cause).

Massage therapy also was felt to reduce the overall cost of care. However, there are many forms of massage treatment, and it has not been clear which type is most beneficial for people with low back pain.

A new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine sheds some light on this.

Relaxation massage, a standard technique, helps relax the tense muscles that contribute to pain. Structural massage uses a more specific approach to release tension, requires more training and might be more expensive.

The researchers speculated that the patients receiving the structural massage would have greater pain relief than those getting the simpler massage.

Each of the massage groups received a weekly one-hour massage for 10 weeks; the placebo group received usual care for people with back pain – including pain medications, muscle relaxers and physical therapy.

After 10 weeks, both massage groups noted a significant reduction in pain, as well as an improvement in their daily functioning; there was no significant difference between the two types of massage therapy. The improvement in function seemed to last at least six months, but benefits after one year were questionable.

The authors concluded that both relaxation and structural massage were beneficial treatments for people with chronic nonspecific low back pain.

The bottom line is that it might simply come down to which type of massage therapy you prefer, and that is something each of us needs to determine for ourselves. Other factors: Obesity, lack of exercise and depression are all on the rise and contribute to pain.

So if you suffer from chronic back or neck pain: Work on getting your weight into a normal range, exercise daily and get help if you suffer from depression. If this doesn’t do the trick, consider gifting yourself with a massage periodically. It might be one of the best investments you make in your health and well-being.