Massage Therapy Research – A Summary

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Medicine and healthcare is driven, in large part, by research. Clinical trials give us information to help direct avenues of care, whether it be in medications, rehabilitation programmes, or choices of treatment. For a long time, massage research was scarce and/or hard to come by. Recently, however, more research is being done in this field and we are starting to get more answers as to what effects massage has on the body and where it can be most useful.

Last year the Association of Massage Therapists in Australia published a 118-page document classifying various massage therapy research along with a ‘State of the Evidence‘ statement. The studies are grouped into categories (such as chronic pain, myofascial pain, low back pain, neck and shoulder pain, mood and sleep, athletes/sport/exercise, safety and cost-effectiveness) with hyperlinks to the published article where the research is available for free online. Each study is classified according to the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council’s evidence hierarchy.

Based on the evidence they’ve reviewed, they have come to the conclusions that 1) “a large body of empirical evidence supports the established effects of massage therapy for the following conditions and populations:” which includes musculoskeletal pain including low back pain, athletes/sport/exercise, mood/anxiety, pregnancy/labour/post-natal, and older adults (among others) and 2)  “Strong preliminary evidence also points toward the clinical efficacy of massage therapy in the treatment of the following conditions:” including headache/migraine, arthritis, hypertension and immune function.

There are summaries of the evidence as relating to pre/post operative individuals, arthritis, pregnancy/post-natal, headaches, and hypertension, to name a few.

To give you a sample, here are a few of the quotes from the summary that particularly resonated with me:

On musculoskeletal pain, including low back, neck and shoulder pain:

“A significant body of evidence, including systematic reviews, supports the effectiveness of massage therapy in the treatment of a range of musculoskeletal presentations” (p.3)

On anxiety/mood:

“Anxiety reduction is one of the most well-established effects of massage therapy with evidence for this crossing multiple presenting conditions and populations.” (p.4)

On athletes/sports/exercise:

“Systematic reviews show that massage therapy is effective in reducing delayed onset muscles soreness and enhancing recovery after strenuous exercise. A number of RCT’s have also shown positive effects of massage on pain and recovery after strenuous exercise”. (p.4)

I strongly encourage anyone who has some free reading time and is interested in the state of the evidence for massage therapy click through and look at the full document, even if just to read the first few pages summarising their review.

Reading the summary myself, I was struck in particular by the references to “short-term benefits” of massage therapy and it being combined it with therapeutic exercise and education in reference to chronic and sub-acute musculoskeletal pain. As any of you who have come to a session knows, in addition to the soft tissue work we do, we educate you about how the body moves/functions and work with you to identify the potential causes of any imbalances. Without altering the cause of the problem, any massage therapy is only going to be short-term as the behaviour that caused it will continue to cause it, and in my opinion the reference to short-term benefits only underlines that further.

As we are discussing the potential efficacy of massage therapy, I want to take this opportunity to stress (again) that it’s important to remember that with any type of presenting pain, the cause(s) can be varied, and as SRMT’s we aren’t able to rule out other, potentially more serious medical causes. Sport and remedial massage therapy would never be a substitute for medical advice and we would never discourage you to check with your doctor regarding any symptoms you have. Where you are under the care of a physician for a particular issue you’ll need to confirm with them prior to having massage, and we are always happy to provide update letters or reports to consultants or other healthcare professionals to optimally coordinate your care.

In our research section, we will hopefully continue to look at more studies in-depth as they relate to our soft tissue work, and if you see any studies you think are interesting please do send them our way!

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