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Massage Therapy: What Works and What’s Fake

Posted by Jerry De Luca on Monday, July 27, 2020

Just like the world of chiropractors, the otherwise beneficial profession of massage therapy has been usurped by unscrupulous and dishonest “therapists” who promote unsubstantiated treatments and cures. Snake oil beliefs and practices have deviously slithered into this otherwise honourable profession and brought much of it into disrepute.

The benefits of authentic massage therapy are well known and proven. Depression and anxiety are noticeably reduced. Nerves get stimulated, muscles get relaxed, and some – only some – get help with back pain.

Enter the quacks: Several massage therapy schools and professional groups are promoting unproven treatments in a successful effort to increase their bottom line. The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) claims that therapeutic massage "can help" with the following conditions. They provide no evidence, and none is contained in the scientific literature: 

--arthritis (both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis)
--asthma and bronchitis
--carpal tunnel syndrome
--chronic and temporary pain
--circulatory problems
--digestive disorders, including spastic colon and constipation
--headache, especially when due to muscle tension
--myofascial pain (a condition of the tissue connecting the muscles)
--sports injuries, including pulled or strained muscles and sprained ligaments
--temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ)
--toxin removal

Source: Massage Therapy  http://skepdic.com/massage.html

Just a few more unsubstantiated treatments:

Spinal traction “is often used by massage therapists to treat low-back pain and neck pain. It might be an effective technique for a few patients, but I wouldn’t count on it, or advise anyone to spend much money on it. Like many popular therapies, the evidence is a mess. The absence of conclusive evidence is significant: if traction worked well, it probably would have shown up clearly by now. If traction works at all, it’s certainly not reliable.”

Therapeutic “touch” — “which involves no actual touching, but hovering over the body and manipulating the patient’s ‘aura’ — is a prominent example. It’s not massage, and I think it’s in the same category of credibility as astrology or dowsing. Some massage therapists believe, while many others believe it is nonsense.”

Hydrotherapy and other spa treatments:  “Thanks to the long association between massage therapists and spas, things like salt scrubs, mud wraps, and contrast bathing were actually a part of my (Paul Ingraham)  training (and largely a waste of time and tuition fees). Heating pads and ice packs are clichés of rehab, and I actually rather like those for some purposes, along with a handful of related techniques — but the majority of ‘hydrotherapies’ are quaint, impractical, and of no clear medical value.”

Massage increases circulation: “Massage therapists are particularly fond of claiming that massage ‘increases circulation,’ but it doesn’t, really — certainly not consistently. But it has always been kind of a silly claim, because it doesn’t really matter if massage increases circulation: even a modest boost would be clinically trivial, dwarfed by the effect of any amount of exercise. Metabolic demand is clearly the main driver of circulation. Also, the relaxation we get from any decent massage is directly at odds with increasing circulation: it powerfully shunts blood away from the muscles and into the core. That’s why it’s hard to get moving after!”

Massage detoxifies or flushes lactic acid from your muscles: “Detoxification myths are among the most embarrassing of all massage myths. ‘Detoxification’ sounds good and means little or nothing. There are such things as toxins in the world, but not only is massage unable to ‘flush’ any that matter from the body, it likely produces a mildly toxic state known as rhabdomyolysis. But if you challenge massage therapists to name a ‘toxin’ that they are ‘flushing,’ most will name lactic acid, not rhabdomyolysis. And again, the truth is ironically the reverse of to the myth: evidence has actually shown that massage interferes with lactic acid elimination.”

But The Insurance Companies….

“Massage must be good, because insurers pay for it. People assume that insurance companies are so savvy and parsimonious that they would never cover health services that weren’t effective. That’s almost better than science, right?! Follow the money! But insurance companies don’t have secret methods of determining the efficacy of unproven treatments. The industry has a long history of insuring the treatments people want; they get sucked in by the same hype that their clients are sucked in by, for competitive reasons. And yet, in spite of the popularity of massage, some insurers are starting to notice that it might not be a good value to pay for it.”

Analytics – Lack Of

“Research in the massage therapy field is still in infancy partly due to a lack of research infrastructure and a research tradition. The result is that most registered massage therapists are not accustomed to reading, analyzing, conducting, writing case studies or applying research in their own practice.” (Harriet Hall, RMT, PDP, from “Vision of Specialization for Registered Massage Therapists”)

Cost: A Buck A Minute

“Many critics have pointed out that massage is an extremely expensive way to relax. A good way, to be sure, but costly. On average, professional massage therapists charge about a buck a minute — vastly more than millions of people can afford on a regular basis. This economic perspective is often completely ignored in discussions of whether or not massage works. It probably does in some ways for some people… but well enough for the price? A nap is also quite relaxing, and a lot cheaper. If massage is to be considered a more cost-effective treatment for any medical problem than napping, we really must establish that it does more — quite a lot more — than just mellow people out.”

The Snake Oil Salesperson Visits The Massage Therapist

“Massage therapists, and others in the holistic arts … seem to be a particularly gullible bunch. And there are a lot of people who have seized upon that, and marketed their products, their classes, their modalities, and their wild claims to us … and many of us have fallen for it, hook, line and sinker … and unfortunately, gone on to convince our clients to buy into it, as well. … Our profession has turned into the snake oil medicine show ……. If medical doctors saw even a tenth of the discussions on some of the Facebook massage groups, they would never take us seriously enough to refer a patient to any of us. (Laura Allen, Massage Therapist, author of Excuse Me, Exactly How Does That Work? Hocus Pocus in Holistic Healthcare)


Paul Ingraham’s Story 

“I left massage therapy because the profession is an embarrassing mess

“I love massage, but the profession of massage therapy has a deeply pseudoscientific character overall, defining itself mostly in opposition to science-based or ‘mainstream’ health care, where rejection of science is actually celebrated by many practitioners, probably a majority. My practice was busy and fun; I enjoyed my work and adored my clients. But I wasn’t comfortable in a profession so conflicted about science. It was getting awkward. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career explaining to scientists and engineers and doctors that I was one of the pro-science massage therapists.

“I wrote about these concerns and was threatened with professional censure by the regulatory body that licenses massage therapists. They effectively demanded that I stop blogging. I quit the profession instead. Other therapists who share my feelings have remained in the profession, fighting to modernize the profession, and my hat is off to them — I do what I can to support them with my writing and publishing.”

Further Reading

Massage Therapists Say:  A compilation of more than 50 examples of the bizarre nonsense spoken by massage therapists with delusions of medical knowledge  https://www.painscience.com/articles/shit-massage-therapists-say.php

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Photo:  https://www.wellnessmountain.ca/top-5-types-of-massage-therapy-most-popular-in-toronto/

Jerry De Luca is a Christian freelance writer who loves perusing dozens of interesting and informative publications. When he finds any useful info he summarizes it, taking the main points, and creates a (hopefully) helpful blog post.


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