massage research

You may perhaps have some exposure to massage research in your entry-level education, but there are several reasons your research journey could continue for the rest of your career.

Let’s explore four important reasons.

Reason #1. Lifelong learning

One of the best aspects of my own 43-plus years in the field is the sense that I am challenged to continue to learn and grow every day I see clients. I think you will find as the number of clients you see increases, the possible treatment variations will also increase substantially. Each client is unique and requires us to adapt what we do to meet their needs.

In my practice, I see clients with very specific musculoskeletal problems and each week I see someone with a symptom presentation that is somehow different than what I have seen in the past. When I explore the massage research literature, my hope is to learn from the experience of others, gaining insight on how to possibly apply that knowledge to my client.

This brings up an important point: Research is seldom prescriptive. It is unlikely you will find a massage research study or a case report that perfectly applies to your client. More likely, by reading the study or case report, your background knowledge of the condition will deepen and perhaps give you insight into how to apply what you read to the needs of your client.

Research can give us guidelines, deeper knowledge and exposure to an array of choices that might have been previously unknown to you. When the massage session starts, you still make choices about what you do.

To use the art metaphor, your reading of the massage research literature can increase the number of possible colors in your palette. From all these possibilities, you still must make choices when putting the brush to the canvas. In that way, a better understanding of the science can deepen the art of massage. 

Reason #2. Knowledge evolves

In my early training, we therapists were often taught that massage therapy for people with cancer was contraindicated. With continued research, the current approach is vastly different and has provided solace and relief to thousands of people with cancer. The Massage Therapy Foundation has funded numerous Community Service Grants to bring the benefits of massage to people living with cancer. Many additional research studies have explored this topic as well, and we continue to learn how massage may be of help to people undergoing cancer treatment.

Oncology massage is just one example of areas of knowledge that have changed over the years. There are many others, including pregnancy, infant, geriatric and sports massage, among others.

Most importantly, knowledge and understanding evolve over time. To stay abreast of these changes, therapists need a way to access that information as it develops. Research findings are at the front edge of that discovery model. 

Reason #3. Reflective analysis

The biggest benefit I experienced when first starting to explore massage research was it helped me to be more reflective about what I did and why, rather than reflexive.

My early forays into reading massage research helped me think like a researcher when I was in my treatment room: What was my hypothesis that potentially explained my client’s presenting symptoms? How could I measure outcomes and was I sure any outcome was related to my treatment choices? Could this be applied to other clients with similar presentations? On what knowledge was my treatment approach based? How did I know what I know?

The process of reflecting and questioning myself benefited me greatly. Perhaps not surprisingly, the clearer I was about that process, the easier it was to convey these ideas to clients as well, which strengthened that relationship.

Every study has strengths upon which we can stand and weaknesses that give us pause. Authors of papers almost always self-reflect on the weaknesses of the study at the end of the paper as well. They point out shortcomings and make suggestions for future researchers. It is equally rare to read a study that doesn’t express the need for more research. It takes many studies in any given area before we can begin to draw solid inferences about application.

In just about every area of massage therapy practice, far more massage research is needed. There is much to explore as each study seems to unveil richer and deeper questions, an unending process. The goal is often better and clearer questions rather than a quest for definitive answers.

Reason #4. Collaboration and communication

I have had the good fortune lately to participate in several conferences with other health care professions. In each conference in which I have presented, the receptivity of other disciplines to the benefits of massage therapy has been nothing short of remarkable. It is my impression the growing depth and breadth of the massage research literature is a major factor in this openness to massage.

In several cases, presenters from allied professions have already explored the massage research literature before my presentation. This changes the ensuing conversation from whether or not massage is helpful to a conversation about when and how to integrate it. Data really does change the conversation in fundamental and meaningful ways. It also shows we are a profession that is self-reflective and thoughtful about the work we do.

Perhaps just as important, learning to explore massage therapy research teaches us to be conversant in the language of science.

As our research literacy and communication skills grow, we can better share the vast benefits of this work in a way that is understandable to other disciplines. We, in turn, can better understand the needs of other disciplines as well.

Research skills can make us much better communicators, making a comprehensive and integrative approach more likely if we speak the same language. We, as a profession, have an important contribution to share, but communication must happen in a common language, understandable and familiar to all concerned. 

Make a Difference

For all of you who are new or relatively new to the profession, I would like to offer my sincere wish for you to have a long career filled with lifelong learning, personal growth, and the knowledge that you are truly making a difference in the lives of the people you touch. Massage research may be a valuable compass to accompany you on that remarkable journey.

About the Author

Douglas Nelson, BCTMB, LMT

Douglas Nelson, BCTMB, LMT, wrote this article for MASSAGE Magazine on behalf of the Massage Therapy Foundation, of which he is president. He has actively maintained his Board Certification for over 25 years and recently contributed as an item writer for the updated Board Certification exam in 2018. Nelson is celebrating his 43rd year in clinical practice.

What the MTF Does for You

The Massage Therapy Foundation is a 501(c)3 providing support to the massage therapy profession. Since 1990, MTF has provided over $1 million in research grants studying the science behind therapeutic massage.

MTF founded and publishes an open-access, peer-reviewed scientific journal and provides many educational resources for massage therapists, educators and students. MTF also provides community service grants to populations in need of therapeutic massage who would otherwise lack access.

Learn more, donate, or apply for a community service grant here.