Massage therapy is one of the oldest health care practices known to mankind. References to the application of manual therapy can be traced throughout history in different cultures all over the world.
Modern massage therapy draws from the knowledge and healing practices of these long-standing traditions with a continued focus on providing safe and holistic treatments for improved health and well-being.
As we strive to advance the massage therapy profession and integrate it into allied medical fields, massage therapy research has become essential to verify the many benefits of the treatment modalities we use. Many massage and bodywork therapists, however, are grappling with how scientific research relates to day-to-day practice and care for their clients.
Scientific research is the key to validating the techniques we work with and establishing the efficacy of massage therapy and its broad ability to address clients’ needs. Building an evidence-based practice allows us to validate techniques that work based on independent research, helps us understand the importance and impact of the treatments we use, supports our credibility as a respected part of health care teams, and gives us the opportunity to help our clients achieve better results.
In this article, we report about the pioneering work of the Massage Therapy Foundation (MTF) as they follow their mission of advancing the knowledge and practice of massage therapy by supporting scientific research, education and community service. We interviewed several massage therapy professionals who work as practitioners, educators and researchers, and asked them to share how being involved with the MTF and massage research has affected their work and careers.
Grants & Contests
For many therapists interested in scientific research and evidence-based practices, the MTF has become an important part of their work, opening doors through grants, contests and education.
One of these therapists is Robin Miccio, MS, LMT, CEIM, who works as Integrative Health Program Manager at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where she oversees the clinical, research and educational aspects of the program, including massage, acupuncture and yoga therapy.
When asked about how she got started in her massage research career she shares, “I’ll never forget the moment I learned about MTF’s Case Report Contest in MASSAGE Magazine. That moment singlehandedly changed the trajectory of my career. As a new practitioner, I wanted to contribute to the scientific validation of massage therapy, but I didn’t know how. MTF gives our profession the avenues to do just that. I ended up placing in the contest, presenting at IMTRC, and then being so inspired there, I pursued an advanced degree in health science research.”
Since 2006, the MTF has offered the Student Case Report Contest to provide an opportunity for students to develop research skills and enhance their ability to provide evidence-informed massage to the public. This was how MTF President Robin B. Anderson, MEd, LMT, BCTMB, CEAS, MLD-C, got started.
“Research has been a part of my massage therapy career from the start,” Anderson said. “It began with my interest in completing a case report, which won a Bronze Award from MTF. I was so honored to be recognized and proud to represent my college. That case report impacted me so profoundly that it is how I approach treatment with every one of my clients and patients, and that inquisitive nature comes through in my hands as well.”
Anderson has written two case reports in her career and is currently working on a case series with a colleague. Her passion for research also carries over into her role as an educator.
“When I lecture or provide instruction for my students, I point out what we know through the latest research; and I practice what I preach,” she said. “Enjoying the critical thinking aspects that research provides when you engage in it, I encourage anyone to give it a try. You don’t know what you are missing and how it can impact you.”
Another massage therapist who entered her research career through the Student Case Report Contest is Erika Larson, LMT, MSBIOE, BSME. She said she views research in the context of massage therapy, bringing many different professional roles under one umbrella.
“Research provides me with perspective in which to frame the ‘it depends’ encountered in the practice of massage therapy,” she said. “Participation in MTF’s case report contest and subsequent collaborations with MTF facilitated meeting individuals involved in massage therapy research, presenting at research-focused conferences, and publishing. … Through collaboration with other researchers and utilization of resources created by MTF, I am working part-time with a massage school to improve their research capacity and increase their research literacy.”
Research Grant Funding
Curiosity and willingness to ask the questions that have not yet been answered are important hallmarks of every researcher’s mindset. JoEllen M. Sefton, PhD, ATC, LAT, was guided into her research career by the longing to understand things on a deeper level. MTF’s support made it possible for her to pursue the quest for more answers.
“Throughout my training as a massage therapist I asked ‘why?’ and ‘how do we know this?’; one of my mentors called me her 2-year-old adult,” said Sefton. “The fact that I couldn’t find the answers was a big factor driving me to pursue my PhD, so that I could find them for myself. MTF funded my very first grant, allowing me to pursue finding some of these answers. I’ll always be grateful for their willingness to fund a new, unproven researcher.”
Past MTF President Doug Nelson, LMT, BCTMB, also followed his curiosity to develop a new understanding for research; he explains how a research-minded approach can inform the practice of every massage therapist.
“About 15 years into my career I asked myself the simple question, ‘How do I know what I know?’ That simple question sparked a sense of questioning and curiosity that completely reinvigorated my practice,” he said. “I’ve since come to see research as a formalized and structured form of curiosity.
“Individual therapists can employ many of the principles of investigation and inquiry into our own massage practices, helping us to serve our clients more effectively,” he added. “Through case studies, that knowledge can be shared with colleagues and other health care providers.”
Research as a Career
Intuitively, we know about the profound healing power of touch and we see the results in our clients every day. Adding the research component and allowing scientific findings to inform our therapeutic approach don’t have to take away from the human care we strive to give our clients. Jolie Haun, PhD, LMT, shares with us how massage therapy and massage therapy research has shaped her career path on a scientific as well as on a personal care level.
“Becoming a massage therapist in 1995 was the first professional endeavor that I completed that inspired me to ultimately seek a career path to scientifically examine the impact of complementary and integrative health, such as massage therapy and bodywork, on outcomes such as pain and stress management,” she said.
“Massage therapy gave me the skill set to not only advance into a scientific career but also be able to provide touch for people that need healing and for those that need comfort in the palliative setting.”
Research Enriches Daily Practice
The MTF encourages massage therapists who are interested to become involved and perhaps shift their thinking when it comes to scientific research. Michael Hamm, LMP, CCST, explains that scientific research doesn’t have to be separate from daily work with clients but can truly be an enrichment to develop an effective client-centered therapeutic practice.
“I used to think that scientific research was distant and distinct from my hands-on work. MTF changed that by putting me in direct community with the folks trying to discover the effects and mechanisms of what I do,” he explained. “Now I know that all science is just people, weaving their brains together to find out the most useful and beautiful truths. My schooling, business, and most importantly, patient care are daily enlivened by the efforts of MTF and the massage research community.”
Explore MTF Resources
Rigorous research about massage can challenge tradition, but it strengthens our profession and provides guidance for massage therapists to be as effective as possible. MTF provides excellent support for all massage therapists and health care professionals who want to learn more about massage research, stay informed about current research or get involved themselves by becoming part of research studies in their own practices or within an organization.
MTF-funded research ranges from massage for chemotherapy-related neuropathy to migraines, cancer, spinal cord injury and other conditions. The foundation has consulted on numerous large research studies, funded five systematic reviews, and hosts the International Massage Therapy Research Conference. The MTF also founded and publishes the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork, which provides peer-reviewed case reports and scientific information free of charge.
Please visit MTF’s website to learn more about the research conference, grants, programs and educational services including podcasts, e-books, infographics and webinars.
Support for Your Profession
MTF is dedicated to ensuring the sustainability, relevance and visibility of the massage therapy profession for the benefit of this and future generations—and we look forward to supporting you in your professional development as practitioners, educators and researchers.
About the Author:
Andrea Winzer, LMT, BCTMB, holds a master’s degree in ecology and is a board certified massage and bodywork therapist. She practices CranioSacral Therapy and offers a variety of holistic treatment modalities with a focus on the integration of body-mind-spirit, release of physical and emotional trauma from the body, and supporting mental health therapies through trauma-sensitive bodywork. She wrote this article on behalf of the Massage Therapy Foundation.