Massage Therapy Research Examines New Possibilities

By Kathryn Feather
February 15, 2012

Massage Therapy Research Examines New Possibilities

By Kathryn Feather
February 15, 2012

Research is an emerging component in the massage therapy field, all the more since the Massage Therapy Foundation (MTF) came on the scene in 1990. With a $30,000 grant from the MTF last year, Katharina Wiest, PhD, is currently looking at the impact of massage on chronic pain. Research like Wiest's could lead to additional areas of study and bring massage therapy to the forefront for other health care providers, as well as patients, looking for alternative treatment options that don't involve drugs.

The Funding Journey

According to Weist, the journey to the 2011 MTF grant actually began in 2009. Wiest works for CODA, a behavioral health care agency in Portland and she "was looking for grant support to evaluate nonpharmacologic treatments" for those suffering from; opioid dependence when she came across the announcement from the MTF. Wiest said that, "by December 2009, it was clear I needed to partner with experts in the massage field."

Wiest explains that the gravitation to massage and other alternative methods is something her research world is looking toward. "I see an important intersection of massage therapy and addiction treatment. There are many avenues waiting to be explored including massage and PTSD patients with opioid dependence, patients with anhedonia while in methamphetamine recover, etc. What has been especially exiting in this trial, and opens future research doors, has been the acceptance of massage by older male patients."

Research such as this, could lead to additional discoveries in the application of massage therapy in a variety of potential environments where health care professionals are looking for more natural pain relief methods. And that lines up perfectly with the mission of the MTF and their purpose behind awarding these types of grants.

The Massage Therapy Foundation

The MTF has five stated goals: to advance research on therapeutic massage and bodywork, to foster massage therapy initiatives that serve populations in need, to promote research literacy and capacity in the profession, to support the evidence-informed practice of therapeutic massage and bodywork based upon available research, client factors, and practitioner experience and judgment, and finally, to fortify the Foundation's financial resources and organizational effectiveness.

The purpose behind the grants is "to support high quality, independent research which contributes significantly and directly to the basic knowledge of massage therapy and/or its application, including applied research which investigates massage therapy as a health/mental health treatment and/or prevention modality," and Wiest's study falls right in line with this purpose. Another focus of the MTF is research literacy. One way the Foundation accomplishes this is through its online research database, the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork, various research conferences and by providing news articles and, of course, through its grant process.

The 2011 Research Grant Study

The goal of Wiest's study is to "evaluate the efficacy of Swedish massage on chronic pain in opioid dependent patients receiving methadone. The primary aim is to measure the effect of massage on pain intensity. The secondary aim is to measure the impact of massage on other aspects of pain and treatment engagement. Components of the seconding aim are pain quality, physical functioning, emotional functioning, participant rating of improvement and satisfaction with treatment, symptoms and adverse events and decreased substance use and improved engagement and retention in treatment."

She outlined the reasoning behind the study by pointing to the prevalence of chronic pain and the lack of research literature regarding massage therapy as a potential option. According to Wiest, approximately 80% of medication-assisted treatment patients with opioid dependence report chronic pain, so a non-pharmacologic therapy option needed to be investigated. "Chronic pain is a common cause of health care utilization and represents a major health concern. For patients beginning substance abuse treatment, chronic pain is more prevalent among patients with opioid dependence relative to patients with other dependences. Previous scientific research has not connected massage, chronic pain and substance abuse treatment success. Although massage has been demonstrated to alleviate chronic pain symptoms, its use as an adjunctive therapy to modify chronic pain during opioid treatment is absent from the literature. Given the strong biologic basis for the efficacy of massage and the high level of massage acceptance in opioid dependent patients, this trial my provide insight into massage's potential non-pharmacologic chronic pain treatment," said Wiest.

Now midway through the study, the results so far look promising as the lead nurse in the project reports that "what I have found most meaningful is the effect the massage therapy has on some participant's level of engagement in the treatment." After seeing the changes to her patients, this nurse believes "massage therapy has made a difference in the lives of the patients at my CODA clinic. At this point, I would like to study the effects of massage therapy on patients that have been established in recovery through medication assisted treatment."

A female therapist working with these study participants said, "I get to touch their bodies in a compassionate way and listen to their stories through my fingertips. They don't have to talk to me, they don't have to answer to me, and they don't have to fear me and my perception. They just get to exist for one hour with no strings attached."

Teej Ford, the co-investigator and a massage practitioner for the past 18 years, "believes massage therapy research is vital for a wide variety of people with a wide variety of issues. The more research that is done, the more medical and social services professionals will become aware that massage is a valid, low-cost and effective treatment for many physical, mental and emotional problems."

"We are just beginning to understand and grasp the depth of massage efficacy and so it will help to have more hard data and expose as many people as possible to the potential healing effects of massage. Other areas of my particular interest are sports injuries, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, post-orthopedic surgery rehabilitation, chronic pain issues and TMJ disorders," said Ford. "I am really interested in seeing how this study pans out. My hope and belief, of course, is that we will see a decrease in pain and an increase in patients' ability to self-manage their discomfort. I also think that with a reduction in stress, it will change how each participant can manage their condition in general.

MTF President Ruth Werner sums it up best, "the Massage Therapy Foundation invests in scientific research into massage therapy in order to help build the body of knowledge about our field, and to help distinguish the relative effectiveness of massage therapy strategies. This allows massage therapy consumers to have better outcomes and it creates more opportunities for massage therapists, as massage is found useful in some unexpected settings (for instance in the context of cancer treatment and recover or for mental health issues ranging from depression to eating disorders to anxiety). Ultimately, research leads to an increased demand for high quality massage therapy services."

Studies like Wiest's can open the door to new possibilities for the massage therapy profession, its effect on the health care landscape and how consumers with a variety of conditions can see that massage therapy is a viable, drug-free treatment option. For additional information about this study and the Massage Therapy Foundation, visit