The Truth about the Effects of Massage

This effects of massage or what most massage therapists also refer to as the benefits of massage have been passed on by many massage schools as the way it is.  Unfortunately, most of the benefits of massage have not been widely researched and many of the things that are taught in basic massage school are not correct.

I know that after attending the Massage Therapy Foundations Research Conference a few years ago here in Seattle.  Even with all of that information, the stories continue on.  I recently attended the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education Conference (AFMTE) and took the class on Busting Myths and Teaching Truths about the Effects of Massage, with Tracy Walton (who by the way is one of Gods blessings for the massage profession!  If you ever get to take a class with her, she is absolutely fabulous! She is involved with doing research on massage and cancer.)

The rest of this post are based on my notes from the class!

There are three types of different outcomes that can be measured as a result of doing massage. (You can also read more in Chapter 6 in Tracy Waltons book – Medical Conditions and Massage

  1. Clinical Outcomes are subjective reports about whether or not
    clients are doing better with their treatments.  Are they coping and managing better as a result of the massage?  Massage reduces stress is a clinical outcome.
  2. Mechanistic outcomes are based on science.  They are measured in blood tests or other physiological mechanisms such as saliva tests.  Reducing Cortisol is a mechanistic outcome.
  3. Financial Outcomes are is the treatment cost effective?  Can they save money on medications, reduce surgery and things like that.

In general, we use mechanistic outcomes more often even though there is not enough scientific evidence that they are true.  Mechanistic outcomes are weak and the clinical outcomes would be stronger without them. How many times have you heard or read a MT website and their claims:  increases endorphins, increases immunity, reduces cortisol, detoxifies, increases circulation or that they can’t do massage on someone who has cancer because it is spread through the body when.

There isn’t much research to support those effects of massage…sorry.

[Side Note:  Research Literacy.

In research, not all research is created equally and there are different levels of evidence and different classifications of research studies.  That means that there are research studies that are better than others because of the way that they are done.

The Highest Level of research – the one’s that are the best as far as what they show are Qualitative Reviews.  That is when a researcher researches research and make a review of the research that is done -aka Met-analysis. Narrative Reviews are reviews of literature (any type of literature on the topic) are the next top level of evidence, and then Randomized Control Studies -RCT, where there are groups of people who don’t get massage, Case Series which is a series of case studies on one topic, a case report (written by one therapist on one client and explores the massage sessions and results) and then the story or Anecdote that was told.

So back to the effects of massage one by one.

  1. Massage increases endorphins.  T or F ? …………..sorry – F.  There are only two 2 RCT studies ever done.
  2. Massage enhances immunity.   T of F? ……………sorry – F.  There are only a few studies done by the Touch Research Institute done on that which means that there could be research bias because of it being done at the same place.  We need more research on this.
  3. Massage reduces cortisol.     T or F?………………sorry.  F.  Yes you were taught this over and over in massage school and there are many studies by the Touch Research Institute, but there was a big bomb that went off in the form of a Meta-analysis done by Chris Moyer, PhD that shows that massage does not lower cortisol. (see video below)
  4. Massage detoxifies tissues.   T of F…….again. F   There are no studies what so ever on massage and toxins. Toxins are things like mercury or heavy metals or chemical compounds.  Some were taught that the waste products from normal cellular metabolism were called toxins and that massage moved them out of the tissues.  The body takes care of these products from what we know now.  Yes people feel better after massage, but it isn’t because the massage got rid of toxins.
  5. Massage increases circulation.  T or F?  ………are you catching on?  F.  There are only a few RCT’s that were done a really long time ago and were not done with ultrasound so there isn’t any proof that massage increases circulation.  Because we just don’t know what massage does, there are many contraindications around circulatory effects such as blood pressure, blood clots and things like that.  It isn’t really a good idea to ignore the contraindications until more research is done.
  6. Massage Spreads Cancer.    T or F?……… Yes.  F   There is plenty of research that now shows that it is OK to massage people with cancer.  If it was true that massage spreads cancer, patients would also be told to stop exercising and in fact they are usually told to exercise.

So there you have it….the truth about the effect of massage.  Be sure to share this on your Facebook walls, in your newsletters and start changing that long list of things on your website.

So what is the evidence for what massage can do?  The strongest evidence is also a meta-analysis by Chris Moyer that shows that massage reduces depression and anxiety as much as psychotherapy does.  Will massage one day be under psychology boards?

See also Science Literacy