Alice Shoaf, Contributing writer

Jim, who asked not to use his last name, a professional driver has suffered chronic back pain since an accident hospitalized him 10 years ago. He sees his practitioner at least once a month and practices several techniques at home between visits to control his pain.

His practioner is not a doctor. She is a licensed massage therapist.

"I tried a doctor," Jim says. "He prescribed pills that I couldn't use while driving. That's all he did. Driving is my livelihood, so I couldn't use the pills."

He tried rubs and soaks and hot baths, but none of it helped for very long. Muscle spasms, swelling and recurring edema from the right shoulder to his lower spine continued to worsen. Before long the active, athletic man was virtually sidelined at home and was struggling to maintain at work.

Relief came from an unexpected source. Jim was shopping with his wife, limping through the mall in obvious pain, when they came upon three licensed therapists who had set out benches and were offering massages for a reduced price. At his wife's urging, he reluctantly agreed to give it a try.

Thirty minutes later he was sold for life, enjoying a pain-free afternoon for the first time in months.

"This guy knew as soon as he touched me what was wrong," Jim says. "He worked on me from my thighs to my head, and the more he worked, the less pain I felt. It was amazing!"

That particular therapist was too far from home, and Jim tried three or four before choosing a practitioner named Melanie Brown. She took a detailed history on his general health, activities, routine, work habits, the accident and every pain relieving technique he had tried. She also got his medical records. Then she examined him and they made a plan.

"It's not enough to just get a massage," she explains. "Diet, exercise, nutrition, sleep habits and medication all come into play when managing chronic pain. What works well for one person may not be right for another."

Jim's heavy work schedule did not allow for more than one visit per month, but Melanie was not deterred. Under her guidance, he changed his eating habits and trimmed some excess weight. He fixed a more routine bedtime, ensuring more regular sleep. Using relaxation techniques she taught him, he found ways to relieve stress. These techniques, along with simple massages he could perform at home, helped him minimize his pain even while working.

When addressing serious injury patients, Brown prefers to consult with a physician so the treatments can complement each other.

Too many are like Jim, she said, and have given up on the medical practitioner.

"There is a lot we can do to help these folks," she says. "It's better, though, when their doctor is involved with the program. Then we can work together. The benefits to those patients are huge and lasting."

One benefit she has seen is in the medications they are prescribed. Along with massage, Brown has studied nutrition and herbology. She recommends many herbal and homeopathic remedies in her practice and has seen very good results. As her patients get healthier and learn to manage their pain, they need prescribed medications less and less.

Those who keep the doctor in the loop benefit when they do need to see him, as he already knows everything they are doing and taking on a regular basis. He can then prescribe therapies or medications that fit into their regular routine.

Is massage a miracle cure? It is certainly a viable option. Like any therapy, it is important to find the right practitioner. Following instructions and being consistent are important, as well.