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Massage Today
April, 2014, Vol. 14, Issue 04

What Does an Evidence-Based Practice Look Like?

By Ann Catlin, LMT, NCTMB, OTR

We hear a lot these days about evidence-based practice (EBP). As massage therapy becomes more accepted as an allied health profession, I think it's important that we continue to build an evidence-based case for why massage works.

So, what makes a practice evidenced-based? I hope to give you a basic understanding of EBP and offer examples from my own work elders in long-term care facilities.

Definitions of EBP vary somewhat but they all seem to agree that EBP is a combination of:

  • Relevant research evidence using sound methodology.
  • Clinical expertise of the practitioner which is cumulated experience, education and clinical skills.
  • Client/ patient needs, concerns, expectations, goals, values and choice.

The desired outcome of EBP is optimal service to each client/patient on a case-by-case basis. I've paraphrased the steps presented by Duke University Medical School to determine if an approach, modality or method is indeed evidence-based. What we are really trying to find out is whether the methods or techniques we use really are effective to meet the client's need and why or why not? Then we can be confident in the actions we take in caring for our client and also when we articulate the benefits of our services.

Step One

nurse and patient - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Start with the client's clinical problem or a question which arises from the care of the client. Identify the need or problem of the individual client. What's the reason you are seeing this client? Generally, the reason for referral or the client's stated goal is a good place to start.

For example, I have a client who has Alzheimer's disease who is cared for in a memory support unit of an assisted living facility. She becomes increasingly physically agitated (rummaging through other elder's things and grabbing people's arms as they walk by her) and disoriented (going into other people's rooms) in the afternoons, disturbing those who also live there. She has been referred in hopes of calming her and easing the agitated, restless behavior.

Step Two

Construct a well-built clinical question derived from this client's problem. The question must be phrased in such a way as to facilitate finding an answer when you look for relevant research. The question should include: 1. The key problem of the patient; 2. What treatment, method or modalities are you are considering using; and 3. The desired outcome.

In the case of my client, I might ask this question: "In people with Alzheimer's disease, is hand massage and/or back massage effective in reducing physical agitation or restlessness?"

Step Three

Select the appropriate resource(s) and conduct a search. The type of question we ask can help lead us to the best type of study or research to look for. Massage therapy questions often center on how to select treatments that do more good than harm and that are worth the efforts and costs of using them. We're told by the Duke team that randomized controlled trials are best to look for when asking a therapy or treatment question. They offer this explanation of this kind of study: "Randomized controlled clinical trials are carefully planned experiments that introduce a treatment or exposure to study its effect on real patients. They include methodologies that reduce the potential for bias (randomization and blinding) and that allow for comparison between intervention groups and control (no intervention) groups. A randomized controlled trial is a planned experiment and can provide sound evidence of cause and effect."

It's important to understand that just searching the internet for articles isn't enough. We must be careful about the source. The quip, "if it's written on the Web, it must be so," does not apply here! So, where should we look? One recommended source is PubMed/MEDLINE, a respected database of literature. It's beyond the scope of this article to explain how to go about a search in PubMed, however there are tutorials on that website. Since my question is a therapy question, I set out to find studies that used randomized controlled trials about hand and/or back massage to decrease agitation in people with dementia. I found a number of studies exploring massage in dementia care. Several abstracts of the articles report that hand or slow-stroke back massage reduced anxiety, restlessness and other forms of agitation. My next task is to review the articles to see if the methods used for the study meet criteria for valid research.

Step Four

Appraise that evidence for its validity (closeness to the truth) and applicability (usefulness in clinical practice). Fortunately, there are guides to help with this process. We are looking to answer three basic questions:

  • Are the results of the study valid?
  • What are the results?
  • Will the results help in caring for my patient?

In the end, we want to have confidence in the research we cite. One example from my search is a 2008 study, Favorite Music and Hand Massage: Two Interventions to Decrease Agitation in Residents with Dementia. In my best judgment, this study holds up to the criteria for validity. It compares the effectiveness of favorite music (FM) and hand massage (HM) in reducing agitated behaviors. Researchers found that following ten minute sessions of FM and HM individually and combined significantly decreased agitation for up to an hour following the session.

Step Five

Apply the results to your client. Integrate that evidence with clinical expertise, patient preferences and apply it to practice. So, back to my client. Because the afternoon is the time when she becomes more restless, I schedule sessions for mid-afternoon twice a week. Sessions consists of hand massage, slow-stroke back massage and focused one-to-one attention. I also do staff education, teaching them how to do a simple five minute hand massage and focused touch.

Step Six

Evaluate client's response to treatment. What result do you see in the individual client? Were they similar or different from results you found in the research? Do you need to make adjustments to your approach? In the case of my client, she was receptive to receiving hand and back massage and she tolerated a thirty minute session without distraction when the session was carried out in a quiet room. She was talkative during the hand massage and often fell asleep during the back massage. At the end of the session, she remained in a calm, quiet state from thirty minutes to an hour. The care staff reported that they noticed a decrease in the restless behaviors, especially her tendency to grab people's arms. The staff used the simple hand massage protocol in the late afternoon and reported it seemed to also help relax her and that she enjoyed the interaction and smiled.

Where does my clinical experience fit in to all this? I've had hundreds of sessions with elders living with Alzheimer's disease and related dementia, many of whom have some degree of agitated behavior, anxiety and restlessness. It's been my experience that human touch, massage and compassionate presence ease these issues and have a profound effect on enhancing quality of life. I've also witnessed the effect of shared human touch on the ability of a person with advanced dementia to engage in relationship.

And last, but certainly not least, what about my client's needs, preferences, expectations? It's a little tricky sometimes to determine what my client might want or need when she can't state them clearly because of dementia. It falls to me to tune in to the non-verbal cues. People with dementia tell us a lot about their inner world and needs through behavior. My client's restless behaviors that annoyed others are her way of communicating a need in the moment. Perhaps she's lonely or is disoriented and thinks she needs to get home to take care of her kids. I also always know that one universal expectation of each client is to have basic human needs met and to be treated with respect.

Taking all this into account, can I state with confidence that my approach is evidence-based? I believe that, yes, I can. I hope this has helped you understand what evidence-based practice is all about so you can perhaps apply it to your own work.


  1. Sackett. D.L. (1996) Evidence Based Medicine: What it is and What it Isn't. British Medical Journal. January 13; 312(7023): 71–72
  2. Duke University Medical Center Library and the Health Sciences Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2013) Introduction to Evidence-Based Practice. Accessed online at
  3. American Speech, Language and Hearing Association. Introduction to Evidence-Based Practice. Accessed at
  4. Hicks-Moore S and Robinson B (2008) Favorite Music and Hand Massage: Two Interventions to Decrease Agitation in Residents with Dementia. Dementia, Vol. 7, No. 1, 95-108.
  5. Thompson, D. (2012) Hands Heal. Lippincott Williams & Williams, Baltimore, MD.

Click here for previous articles by Ann Catlin, LMT, NCTMB, OTR.


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