Your commitment to being the best massage therapist you can be means research literacy is now part of your job description. Go forth, and look it up.

Massage research literacy means being able to find, understand and apply research findings to your sessions.

“What does the research say about massage and addiction?” “Have there been any studies about massage therapy and arachnoid cysts?” “My sister has reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome. Is massage a good idea for her?”

These are just a sample of the questions that come to me on a regular basis.

I love getting these questions—and no, that is not an invitation to inundate me—because it gives me the chance to teach people how to fish. In other words, getting solid answers to these questions isn’t that hard, and I am excited to share research literacy skills with as many massage therapists as I can.

What is Research Literacy?

First, “research literacy” refers to the ability to find, read, evaluate and apply research findings. Many massage therapists are not educated in research literacy skills during their time in massage school, but that is beginning to change.

What I am offering here is a tiny drop in the ocean, but it is enough to get you started. Better yet, I have included an option for how to continue to grow in the direction of research literacy, so you can find the resources you need to serve your clients better.

The Research Process

When a research team conducts a project—determining whether massage has an impact on postsurgical scarring, for instance—the investigators write up their findings in a format all scientists follow.

In the best of all possible worlds, this article is then subjected to rigorous peer review with readers who have some expertise, so they can point out any weaknesses or inaccuracies in the article that need to be addressed.

Then the article is published in a scholarly journal, where readers can access it and apply the study both to clinical practice and as a foundation on which to build further research.

This describes the development of a primary source; that is, an article produced by the scientific team that conducted the research. Primary sources provide information that is straight from the horse’s mouth—meaning it is written by the scientists, and not interpreted by another party

1. One of the simplest ways to reach primary sources is on PubMed, a worldwide database of rigorously reviewed biomedical journals. Search terms in PubMed yield titles that may be relevant, and a click-through takes readers to an abstract: a thumbnail sketch of the study.

Readers can then be directed to the full text, which sometimes requires a subscription fee.

By contrast, secondary sources are typically not written by researchers; instead, they are written by writers and educators who take on the task of reading primary sources and interpreting them for audiences that might find value in them but may not have time or skills to access the unfiltered material

2. Google Scholar is a Google service that filters out advertisements and promotional materials. This leaves articles created by researchers (primary sources), but also educational institutions or governmental bodies like the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Both Google Scholar and PubMed allow users to list topics for automatic alerts. Because of this, I receive an email every week, with a list of articles on PubMed about massage and pain, my chosen keywords

3. A number of print options for massage therapy research information is also available. The seminal text is Making Sense of Research, 2nd ed. by Martha Menard (Curties Overzet, 2015).

Another valuable one is Massage Therapy: Integrating Research and Practice (Human Kinetics, 2012), edited by Trish Dryden and Christopher Moyer. This book has collected massage research on many different topics, and offers it in context of how to apply findings to practice.

4. Massage therapy trade journals offer regular research-related content. These are secondary sources, but they convey research findings in easy-to-follow language, and they refer back to the primary sources for more detailed information.

Articles in publications can also be helpful for clients who are curious about massage therapy research that might apply to their own situations

5. The Massage Therapy Foundation, in partnership with the Academy of Clinical Massage, offers an online, self-paced research literacy educational opportunity, called “Basics of Research Literacy.”

This distance-learning class is designed to help newcomers to research learn how to find, read, make sense of and apply the studies they need to improve outcomes for their clients.

It is approved for three hours of continuing education credit by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB).

“Basics of Research Literacy” will help you develop some level of comfort in this vast world of research, and it will go further than this article in giving you some tools to make use of all the information that has already been developed.

Learning to read and interpret research is a skill that may take time and practice. The language can seem dense and obscure, until you get used to it.

Evaluating research is a complicated process that also takes practice. But it’s important to know that not every article to makes it into print is reliable, and it is our duty to read research with a critical eye to look for flaws and weaknesses.

Apply Research to Your Practice

When it comes to applying research findings to practice, we may want to assume that what happened in one situation will happen in all situations.

It’s important to remember to make generalizations carefully.

Let’s say you’re looking for information about massage for your client, a 75-year-old man with adhesive capsulitis, and all you can find are articles about women with frozen shoulder younger than age 60.

It is not a stretch to suggest if massage provides some specific benefits for one population, it will do the same for a similar population. It is appropriate to generalize from the studies you find to apply to your client.

Congratulations—you don’t have to reinvent this particular wheel.

On the other hand, your client may be a 6-year-old girl with a rare type of brain cancer, and the only studies about massage and brain cancer you can find refer to adults with a different type of brain tumor.

Not only may the disease processes be different, but children are likely to deal with the challenges of the disease, its treatments and the additional stimulus of massage differently from adults.

This population is less generalizable, and before you assume the studies you found will apply to your client, it would be wise to consult with her oncology team.

It is often wise to let go of specific conditions in your searches. Rather, look for information on massage and pain, or massage and sleep, or massage and whatever your client wants to change.

This could be anxiety, stress, immobility, nausea or any number of other symptoms.

It can be easy to feel completely overwhelmed either by the huge amount of information available on your topic or by the complete lack of useful information your keywords uncover.

You will benefit by developing your research literacy, and so will your clients.

By its very nature, research leads to improved client outcomes.

Your commitment to being the best massage therapist you can be means research literacy is now part of your job description. Go forth, and look it up.

About the Author:

Ruth Werner, BCTMBRuth Werner, BCTMB, is a former massage therapist, a writer and an NCBTMB-approved continuing education provider. She wrote A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Pathology, now in its sixth edition, which is used in massage schools worldwide. She wrote “Is Your Massage Based on Folklore or on Evidence-Informed Practice?” for MASSAGE Magazine’s November print issue.


If you enjoyed reading this MASSAGE Magazine online article, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for more articles about massage news, techniques, self-care, research, business and more, delivered monthly. Subscribe to our e-newsletter for additional unique content, including product announcements and special offers.