Douglas Nelson teaching a massage therapy class
Douglas Nelson teaching a massage therapy class

Research and the Massage Therapy Profession

By Douglas Nelson , LMT, BCTMB, CNMT
2020-11-18

Research and the Massage Therapy Profession

By Douglas Nelson , LMT, BCTMB, CNMT
2020-11-18

Over the course of the last few years, I have spoken about the importance of massage therapy research in order to help create a shift in the health care conversation. most often changing the discussion from whether massage therapy is helpful to when and how best to apply massage. In just the last few months, two major pain conferences I attended were representations of that shift, reinforcing the importance of our continued efforts to deepen massage therapy research. 

Conversations in Health Care

The Alliance to Advance Complementary and Integrative Pain Management (AACIPM) gathered major players in the field of health care. Presenters at this conference were insurance payers, providers and researchers interested in exploring current concepts in integrative approaches to pain. Major health care providers—like the Veteran’s Administration, CMS: Medicaid and Medicare, United Health Care, Blue Cross Blue Shield, The Hartford, and Health and Human Services—shared data on their experiences. Major universities, some of which have integrative pain treatment centers, also shared their groundbreaking experiences. 

I was fortunate to be a panelist at this conference. Participating deepened my perspective. From the payer viewpoint, data shared by United Health Care was enlightening. They compared the cost of conservative care (physical therapy, chiropractic, massage therapy, acupuncture, yoga) to more traditional allopathic approaches for treating patients with back and neck pain (this data was over 3.3 million episodes and $5.9 billion of coverage). Conservative approaches were less than one-third the cost of allopathic care. Payers take great notice of statistics like that!

At the Veteran’s Administration, a new initiative called Whole Health (WH) is changing the face of care, adding integrative services like massage therapy, yoga and acupuncture. Outcomes are excellent and, perhaps most importantly, the patients, providers and hospital staff have reported a much better experience overall. Compared to veterans who did not use WH services, veterans who used WH services reported greater improvements in:

• Perceptions of the care received as being more patient-centered.

• Engagement in health care and self-care.

• Engagement in life improvements in mission, aspiration and purpose.

• Perceived stress improvements in overall well-being.

Conversations in Health Care Technology

I also attended a two-day workshop entitled “Quantitative Evaluation of Myofascial Tissues: Potential Impact for Musculoskeletal Pain Research,” jointly organized by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). In this workshop, new technologies for imaging myofascial tissue were explored. It was fascinating to see the advances brought forward, mostly in the research arena; these advances will eventually affect clinical treatment approaches. What many of us have felt under our hands is now being digitized and analyzed, so you can imagine the exciting advancements that are on the horizon.

When Conversations Lead to Action

The presenters at both events I attended were some of the most influential thought-leaders in the field of health care today. While it is excellent that massage therapy was mentioned and appreciated at both gatherings, it is abundantly clear that to be in the conversation we need to be in the textbooks. As an example, there was a high rate of implementation of yoga, tai chi, and acupuncture in many of the integrative clinics highlighted at the first conference. It is probably not surprising that the research in each of these three disciplines is, at least at this point, deeper and richer than our own. 

While we have made great progress in deepening the massage therapy research over the last decade, there is far more work to do. There are so many questions to explore and examine in both basic science and clinical applications. Building a robust foundation of research is an incremental process that will require perseverance and dedication.

The Massage Therapy Foundation (MTF) stands ready to serve the profession by continuing to build and deepen the underpinnings of massage therapy research. In this way, we can help fulfill the power and promise of massage and its benefits to a population that needs it now more than ever. 

Check out these related articles:

Massage Therapy in Times of Uncertainty

Professional Identity of Massage Therapists in Canada