In massage school, we’re taught very little about research, primarily because here in the U.S., massage schools graduate students with just, on average, 500 to 1,000 hours of education. We aren’t taught about thinking from a critical standpoint in most massage schools; nor are we taught how to use research in practice.
Not understanding how to read and use research is problematic for massage therapists: Our profession is not fully recognized by the health care community, and physicians aren’t aware of when massage may or may not be appropriate for their patients. Massage therapists struggle to have our treatments approved by insurance companies. Massage therapists aren’t paid well in many places, including when working within the health care system.
One possible solution to all of these problems is taking the time to learn how to read and interpret research.
Once out in the real world, it can be difficult to see the relevance of a subject we weren’t taught in massage school—especially when we are getting results and seeing repeat clients. A therapist might ask himself, “How will being able to read research help me, since I am already successful?”
I like this quote from Irish comedian Dara O’Briain: “People keep saying ‘science doesn’t know everything!’ Well, science ‘knows’ it doesn’t know everything; otherwise it would stop.” To me, this statement sums up the purpose of science. It reminds us that science is about continuously exploring and learning.
In this article, I will share how we can develop the skills to read and understand research. I’ll also share my own journey toward this direction, especially the parts of the journey that were tough.
A Step Back
It is normal for most professions’ general education to be a bit behind the times in science. We can expect the information we learn in massage school to change, or have changed before we graduate. Understanding the science can help elevate our standing in the world of health care.
As we think about what it means to understand research, I think it’s important to take a step back and look at the whole picture.
Intuition vs. Science
I believe that one of the main blocks keeping massage therapists from moving ahead is we rely too much on our intuition. We use intuition to tell us when there is danger, but we also use intuition as a way to explain things we don’t understand.
When we look at the sun, intuitively, it looks as though the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Yet, the sun is not moving at all; it is Earth that is moving. And this is the case with many of the things that we believe about massage: Much of our education and training are based on concepts that our profession intuitively believes to be true, but that don’t fit the science.
For example, think about the idea that massage releases toxins. A massage feels so good, and it’s easy to think about toxins being squeezed and pushed from the muscles. Yet, science tells us that the kidneys filter wastes from the blood, while the very toxic stuff, such as heavy metals, can only be removed from the body with a process called chelation therapy. Toxins aren’t affected by our massage strokes. Yet, schools and massage programs still teach that massage releases toxins.
Another example is how we are taught that massage increases blood flow to muscles. It seems intuitive, right? We rub on an area of the body, and the area being rubbed turns red. What that demonstrates is increased blood flow to the skin, not to the muscles; in fact, current research shows that petrissage pushes blood away from muscles.
Those are two of many examples of massage being taught from an intuitive standpoint. Intuition does not reflect reality; it only demonstrates how we feel something happens. It does not show how something really happens.
It’s human nature to want to find patterns where they don’t exist. We can’t help how our minds work, but we can learn to override that impulse with critical thinking.
In massage school, we generally aren’t taught there is science behind how our minds work. We don’t learn that science can now explain why some people see auras or why others experience strange odors. We don’t learn how easily our emotions are attached to beliefs.
This means we have strong feelings about things we think should be true. It is tough for us to see any other kinds of ideas that might go against what we believe. Science has discovered this is how our minds are wired. This is a human error, not a professional one, but it can become a problem for our profession.
Learning about the ways our minds work can help us see the value of research. Let’s imagine we are holding two wooden blocks, one in each hand. We can put our emotions into one block and our intuitive beliefs into the other block. When we set those blocks aside, we are ready for what is called critical thinking.
We can’t use critical thinking unless we can put our emotions and our beliefs to the side; this is what it means to be objective. When we can look at a research paper objectively, then we are using critical thinking.
When we first learn about critical thinking, we quickly realize it is a difficult habit to develop. We have to give it our constant attention. Critical thinking is an important step in learning about research. We can’t move ahead without it. Once we learn this step, it is easier to read research, especially if we might not agree with it. And we will find that it becomes easier to change our minds if we are presented with scientific evidence.
Learning to Read Research
It takes a lot of work to learn to read a research paper, and it is unlikely any of us will become experts—but we don’t have to be experts from the beginning. Research literacy takes time and effort to practice—and even if we don’t become proficient, at least we can understand the basics. That’s the not-fun part of all this: It takes a lot of work and effort to become skilled at understanding research. We will make a lot of mistakes along the way, but it’s all part of the process.
One accessible course for massage therapists is the Massage Therapy Foundation’s (MTF; massagetherapyfoundation.org) Basics of Research Literacy course, which is taken online, is self-based and offers CE credits. (Disclosure: MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief sits on the MTF’s marketing committee.)
A problem that arises when we can’t read research is we depend too much on the abstract. An abstract is a preview of what a research project has found. Without training, we expect an abstract to give us the full picture of the study. When we begin to learn how to interpret a research paper, we will find that most abstracts don’t match the research.
Many times, an abstract will state what the scientists were hoping to find, but not what was actually learned. Or the abstract will mislead the reader by twisting the results of the study.
When we don’t know how to read research, we look at the abstract and trust that it gives the full picture. When I was first learning to understand research, I was so upset when I learned the truth about abstracts.
Real-World Uses of Massage Research
Being able to decipher research helps our clients who are coming to see us for relief of pain and stress. Often, our clients will ask us questions about what they have read or heard about massage in the media. It’s helpful if we can talk to them about their concerns and help answer their questions.
When we can communicate with our clients from the position of science, it helps to elevate our standing and position us as experts in our field. And it’s OK to say we don’t know something. Our business may already be busy even without knowing how to read research, but that doesn’t mean we should use that as an excuse not to learn.
Another important benefit of learning about research is that it can help open dialogue with other health care professionals. It is important to be able to understand what the evidence does and does not say about massage. With this information, we can communicate with other professionals that comprise our client’s health care team.
Physicians may not understand when massage can be helpful for their patients. We can truly become a part of the team when we are aware of the evidence. Being able to discuss the research elevates our profession and shows we are experts in our field.
For example, several years ago, I had a medical visit with a neurologist. During our session, he mentioned some research he’d read showing that excessive neck tension can lead to temporary vertigo and dizziness. I was familiar with that research and was able to speak with him about it. I gave him my card as I left and let him know that I had experience working with reducing neck-and-shoulder tension. A few months later, he referred a patient of his to me who he suspected might find relief through massage therapy.
Take a Step
Research literacy isn’t accomplished overnight. It takes steps. We may need to take classes to learn about the different parts of a research study and how to read a paper.
By the way, did you know that a research paper isn’t read from top to bottom like a news article? If not, then practice, practice, practice!
It will become easier—and our literacy will support the massage profession in many ways.
Rajam Roose practiced massage for 16 years and is currently on sabbatical. She has an entrepreneurial spirit and is owner of Grow Your Massage Business. Roose is also the founder of the San Diego Pain Summit LLC, which offers National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork-approved home study courses.