How to Use Research in Your Massage Practice

jan(Guest post by Jan Schwartz)

I first became interested in massage therapy research in the mid to late 90s when I chaired the scholarship review committee for the Massage Therapy Foundation. At that time I was also the education director for the Desert Institute of the Healing Arts in Tucson, now part of Cortiva, and I was teaching a course called Injury Management and Rehabilitation.

I have to credit students for really pushing me toward research, not as a researcher but as a consumer of research. Students frequently asked questions that had the tone, “Who says so besides you?” This was in 1995 and I was teaching in a 1,000 hour program.

There were no books that I used exclusively, but I did rely heavily on Whitney Lowe’s newsletters. I used them because he cited research where it was available and he pointed me to other references I could use. This was when Whitney was writing about specific injuries and before he published his first book.

Challenging Conventional Wisdom

As students (of anything) we have a tendency to blindly accept what we are being told by the so called expert, so it is incumbent upon the expert (teacher) to question the sources and use the correct language, e.g. “this seems to be the case based on experience,” or “this research shows that it is the case.” I was fortunate to have students who would challenge me! “Back in the day” there was not a lot of research to rely on.

That’s why I love how research is progressing in our field today. We even have a free online, peer reviewed journal in the International Journal for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork and we have the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, published by Mosby.

To be able to speak confidently about the benefits of massage ups the bar for our profession. I believe all massage therapists need to be able to cite the most basic research that says that what we do, in certain circumstances, has been proven effective.

Anecdotal information is useful, but as we move more toward integrating into the health creation part of the health care system in this country we need more than a good story. And, just as the teacher needs to be careful about language, so does the practitioner. We need to be clear if what we are saying is from our experience or if it is factual and backed by research.

Finding Your Path to Research

Until schools start teaching students how to find and evaluate research, it will fall to the practicing therapist to learn how to do this. There is value to both the client and the therapist in being able to state confidently that massage works in certain instances.

How do you get the knowledge? The AMTA has a research track at every national convention; the ABMP has free workshops on teaching research literacy for practitioners who are also teachers; the Massage Therapy Foundation offers a course that is fully online titled, Basics of Research Literacy. There are also several books that are excellent for learning more about massage therapy and research: Making Sense of Research by Martha Menard, Massage Therapy: Integrating Research and Practice, edited by Chris Moyer and Trish Dryden, among others.

Practical Applications

So how do you use research in your practice? The research example that comes immediately to mind is the study done by Adam Perlman on osteoarthritis of the knee.

Toward the end of my career as a practitioner I had a client ask me if massage might be beneficial for osteoarthritis of the hip. Although I couldn’t point directly to a study of the hip, I could point to Dr. Perlman’s study of the knee and suggested that it might also help the hip.

As you can see, having the knowledge and tools to use research in your practice can make you a better massage therapist and give you more angles with which to look at a problem. Instead of guessing or going by what “feels” right, you can use research to better inform your clients and also help you meet their needs better by making decisions based on evidence.

Therapists can, and should, use research to communicate accurately with clients. This is critically important as we move further into the health care environment and begin to work with practitioners in other fields. For example, the issue about lactic acid that some of us were taught in school has been debunked by research. We can no longer say that massage therapy will remove lactic acid from the muscles of athletes because it isn’t true. Keeping up with new findings in research will help us with our confidence and with our professional image.

Becoming more research-literate can also help you partner with others in the medical community more effectively. If you have a goal of securing physician referrals, a massage practice supported by research will help you establish greater credibility.

How will you become research literate?

Jan Schwartz is co-founder of Education and Training Solutions, a web-based e-learning company that produces online courses. She has worked in education since 1988. Jan served as the Director of Education at the Desert Institute of the Healing Arts in Tucson, AZ and as an Executive Vice President of Education at Cortiva Institute. Jan was a Commissioner for the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation for five years and is a founding member of the Academic Consortium for Complementary and Alternative Health Care. Her paper on the potential for web-based learning in the fields of acupuncture, chiropractic and massage therapy was published in the peer reviewed, International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork.