In the last two decades, scientists have increasingly researched massage therapy to build evidence on effects and outcomes. With new clinical studies published on a regular basis, there is no question that research could impact the practice of massage therapy.
Massage research studies affect consumer expectations, regulatory influences, and how adjunct health care providers interact with massage therapists. Research evidence can also serve as a useful marketing tool to generate new business and gain credibility with primary health care providers.
Massage Research and Education
Research-related skills and knowledge are quickly becoming a core educational requirement for massage therapists. In addition to being integrated into curriculum requirements for basic training, research fluency is expected of experienced practitioners.
National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB) Board Certified massage therapists are required to complete three hours of continuing education in research each renewal period. According to the website of the Massage Therapy Foundation, with which the NCBTMB consulted about the research component of Board Certification, this requirement “emphasizes the importance of research in advancing the professional practice of massage therapy.”
Research literacy also allows massage therapists to provide a higher caliber of work. Research can help inform how to manage difficult cases and give new perspective to routine ones. Considering massage research and its implications can make the therapist’s work life richer and more stimulating. Plus, a massage therapist will prefer to know as much about the benefits of our work as our clients.
Integrating Research into Your Work
There are ways massage therapists can integrate research evidence into their clinical practice. One key to effectiveness is to know how to discern what evidence has application for you and your clients. Here are several tips on bringing massage research to the table.
Clinical Significance: Not all research should alter practice. Research findings are reported in terms of statistical significance and come from random controlled trials, a breed of research that isolates people, their symptoms and treatment variables. However, my clients are not random, and the generalized findings might not apply to them at all. A single study’s appropriateness will vary by the client’s condition, needs, history and preferences based on the massage therapist’s practice-based knowledge. Use common sense when reading results.
Purpose of a Study: When reading about an individual study, determine what was the study’s objective. Some research, such as large sample random controlled trials, test a link between two things (variables); for example, daily infant massage and first-year weight gain.
Other research is exploratory, such as qualitative studies that try to identify what the variables are in the first place; for example, maybe it was not the massage strokes but the mother’s touch. This is called the research design, and it means the approach and problem were well-matched. Were the steps followed the best match for the question?
Trustworthiness: When reading individual research results, a therapist should ask, “Does this research reflect how I practice? Could I apply the results?” Consider what assumptions were behind the method. Did the study look at a practice, technique or situation that represents reality based on your practice experience? Did the study clearly and authentically describe what was done and how, and was this realistic?
Consistent terms and language are a problem for massage researchers: Did the researchers translate practice into their study? Note whether an experienced massage therapist was involved in the study.
Strength of Evidence: Individual studies produce different strengths of results. In addition to having the right design for the problem, strength involves the number of people studied, what measures were collected and analyzed, and the resulting numbers. Depending on the statistical tests used, some numbers show a stronger link between the variables and also can show how big a change occurred. But evidence involves more than one study, and should have different kinds of studies before broad conclusions can be made. New research continually changes the evidence.
Impact: In research jargon, there is a measure called “impact factor.” It is based on how often and where a study is cited. In practice, the impact factor depends on a broader system of stakeholders: clients, regulators, healthcare professionals and other practitioners. Who is talking about this research? Is it on the front page of the New York Times or on the evening news? Are your clients asking about it?
Today, over half the adults in the U.S. get their information electronically, including via social media. Stay current on the news and get it from multiple sources.
Quality Sources: Published reports, articles and papers are the cornerstone of scientific communities. Accepted research must be reviewed by other experts (peer-reviewed) and published in scholarly journals. Authors are experts, and not usually journalists. But unless you have tons of time and are a research hound, there are accounts in trusted trade magazines, news sources, and summaries that can adequately inform you.
Beware of believing everything you read, especially on the internet. Even highly rated sources reframe the story.
Stay Fluent: Research evidence is shifting constantly. New research continually changes the evidence. For those already fluent in reading research, see the list below for some primary and secondary sources. If you are not fluent, consider taking a course; many are geared to massage therapists and offered online.
Consider networking with colleagues for more efficient results. How can you involve your clients in the research work? With information at the fingertips of all our clients, can you put your clients to work on their own behalf?
Above all, use your voice of experience and stay open to new knowledge. Also, keep in mind that absence of supporting evidence does not necessarily mean an approach is invalid—it just has not been studied yet.
About the Author
Luann Drolc Fortune, Ph.D., L.M.T., N.C.B.T.M.B., has been a massage teacher and licensed practitioner with over 20 years of experience. Mid-career, she returned to graduate school and earned a doctorate researching the work of massage therapists. She now holds a director and faculty position at Saybrook University’s College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences. She also teaches NCBTMB-approved workshops for massage therapists on research literacy and ethics.
Places to Find Research:
Google Scholar: scholar.google.com
BioMed Central: biomedcentral.com
Open Access Research Journals:
Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine: alternative-therapies.com
International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork: ijtmb.org/index.php/ijtmb
American Massage Therapy Association Position Statements are the result of analysis of collective research evidence on specific conditions: amtamassage.org/infocenter/research_amta-position-statement.html
Massage Therapy Journal: amtamassage.org/articles/3/mtj/index.html
MASSAGE Magazine research studies: massagemag.com/research-studies