I am a writer and former overqualified massage therapist in Vancouver, Canada. I publish this website with help of several editors and contractors, and correspondence with many expert colleagues I am honoured to know. In particular, I was the assistant editor for ScienceBasedMedicine.org for six years (2010-2016), working closely and constantly with their world class team and authors. PainScience.com is huge (1,900,000 words) and busy (44,000 daily visitors), and it routinely attracts the attention of anyone who might care about the science of painful problems. The site is funded solely by sales of educational e-books, and zero advertising. I keep it clean. My main qualifications are:
- 15 years of workaholic independent study
- valuable relationships with many experts
- clinical experience from a busy 10-year massage practice (2000–2010)
- some entrepreneurial success making science education profitable
- 25 years of writing and publishing of all kinds
- ironic personal experience with serious chronic pain
Who am I to say?
More detailed information about my qualifications
I get asked this so often I had to add it to my site FAQ:
Q. Do you have any practical experience?
A. YES. Yes yes yes. Yes! Even with much of the flakier stuff I debunk.
Many readers want more information about my qualifications and credentials, because I deal with a lot of spicy subject matter — myths and quackery in health care. I am often mistaken for an “expert,” but I am merely well-acquainted with the work of many actual experts. I’m a liaison, translator, and popularizer. But I am not unqualified either! The rest of this page answers the question, “Who am I to say?”
- major influences, mentors, and acknowledgements
- my clinical experiences as a Registered Massage Therapist in Vancouver
- the bizarre, spicy story of my departure from the profession of massage therapy
- my history of fascination with alt-med, vitalism, and “internal” martial arts
- how creating this website has been as much work as any degree (or vastly more)
- how editing for ScienceBasedMedicine.org has affected my career
- my own athletic injuries, and chronic pain problem since 2015
- a reminder that credentials are important, but they’re not everything
- and an interesting appendix about the Continuing Education Nazi: “No credit for you!”
Major influences, mentors, and acknowledgements (a hopelessly inadequate summary)
It’s impossible to thank everyone who matters without getting tedious. Just like at the Oscars!
Dr. Lorimer Moseley, Diane Jacobs, PT, and Jason Silvernail, PT, are particularly responsible for teaching me some mind-bendingly important lessons about neurology that changed everything (and still are). Tony Ingram, a PT destined for research, and BBoy Science author, regularly helps me make sense of the science.
The entire team at ScienceBasedMedicine.org, but especially Drs. Steve Novella, Harriet Hall, David Gorski at ScienceBasedMedicine.org, have all been particularly generous and supportive, and taught me how to think about health care.
Blogger-massage-therapists Alice Sanvito, Todd Hargrove, Laura Allen, Ravensara Travillian — out of literally dozens of other worthies — have all routinely given me invaluable ideas, advice, perspective, and so on.
Chiropractic apostate Sam Homola, DC has particularly been an inspiration and a resource; Eyal Lederman’s writing has taught me much, and I’m privileged to correspond with him. Anti-quackery activist Dr. Stephen Barrett has offered various kinds of support over the years. Psychologist and massage researcher Dr. Christopher Moyer has contributed expertise and comments to PainScience.com many times over the years.
I ain’t just book smart: clinical experience as a Registered Massage Therapist
Many critical readers accuse me of having no practical experience with patients. It’s just so deeply ironic and amusing when people assume that the only possible explanation for my skeptical opinions is that I must not have any work experience as a massage therapist. I was a “Registered Massage Therapist” or RMT for a little under 10 years, from 2000–2010. My downtown Vancouver practice was a success by virtually any measure.1 I quit happily at the end of 2010 to focus on my writing career.
I was what would be called a “medical” massage therapist in most places — that is, I was not just a “masseuse.” I was trained in and have extensive knowledge of musculoskeletal health science and injury rehabilitation. I also carried on to do vastly more academic post-graduate study than most of my colleagues. That’s no empty boast: I have the large body of work to prove it.
RMT’s certified in British Columbia, Canada, are unusually well-trained compared to other massage therapists around the world. I studied for 3 years, a 3000 hour program including 500 hours of internships. Three years of training is roughly three times longer than the training required in most regulated jurisdictions. For more information about these unusual certification standards, see Massage Therapy In British Columbia, Canada.
In BC, Graduates have to take some large government certification exams; they are tested on anatomy, physiology, pathology, physical assessment, and several manual therapy modalities. About half my graduating class failed on the first attempt, and some even required 3 and even 4 attempts. (Yes, I did pass on the first try, with excellent grades.)
I maintained a busy full-time practice here in Vancouver from mid-2000 to 2010. I did about 5000 treatments in that time — that’s a lower number than many therapists, but “busy” is defined in many ways (all my appointments were long, for instance, and I did an extraordinary amount of rehab consultation with clients outside of their appointments). I was certified by the College of Massage Therapists of British Columbia, which is regulated by the Province of British Columbia.
Why I quit my massage therapy career and became an alt-med apostate
In 2007, I was formally accused of being an “unprofessional” Registered Massage Therapist, by my regulatory body, the College of Massage Therapists of BC. They didn’t do this because of any conventional regulatory concern (about my competence or the safety of the public) but because I was criticizing pseudoscience in alternative medicine on my website. I accepted an unusual public reprimand and made a few changes to my website, but the CMT pressed their strange case even further, effectively demanding that I quit my skeptical writing altogether.
I quit the profession instead. You can read the whole bizarro-world story on ScienceBasedMedicine.org: Why I Quit My Massage Therapy Career.
I love massage, but the profession is a mess. It 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. That is why I left: not just because I had a scrap with my regulator, but because I just 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. Others like me have remained, of course, 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.
Flaky stuff: a history of fascination with alternative medicine, vitalism and “internal” martial arts
Most of my critics assume that I must be ignorant of all things alternative, magical, spooky, and flaky. In fact, my “street cred” in this area is quite solid — so much so that I find it fairly embarrassing today. My modern skepticism is all the more credible for having left that world behind.
In my teens, I incorrectly believed that I had serious health problems resulting from steroids which had been prescribed to me by a physician at the Vancouver Childrens’ hospital. It took years and many important lessons for me to accept that steroids and doctors were not to blame. The early phase inspired my original interest in alternative health care, while the latter discovery triggered my interest in science-based medicine.
I did this kind stuff for 20 years: semi-mystical martial arts. I was insufferably earnest about it. And I moved on.
I practiced taijiquan and qigong seriously for twenty years, and participated in a number of other martial arts, such as aikido. I got started when I was a child. I was exposed early in life, way back in the mid-80s, to some of the world’s foremost experts in the idea of vital “energy” and traditional Chinese medicine — Jock McKeen and Bennet Wong, the remarkable founders of Haven, analogous to the Esalen Institute. Jock and Ben and Haven influenced me strongly until as recently as a few years ago. Those experiences are responsible for so much of who I am today both professionally and personally that calling it just an “influence” would be quite the understatement — it’s more like a foundation.
I started to move decisively in a new direction around 2000, but from about ages 12 to 32, I was obsessed by and immersed in vitalism and “subtlety” in health and the martial arts, and many other marvellously flaky things. For instance, I had a rather sensational year of travelling around on my motorcycle, working for room and board on organic farms in the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia.
So I was pretty crunchy.
I went far deeper into deepities and spookyisms than most, to the point of being a pretty eccentric teenager and young adult. So not only am I not merely an armchair theoretician, I was really quite barmy about this stuff, truth be told!
And I also grew up, eventually. I consciously rejected much of it, and moved on, taking a few good ideas and discarding countless bad ones. I started massage therapy college in 1997, and by the time I graduated in 2000 I had already lost much of my appetite for “flaky stuff.” A couple relationships with hippie chicks during school had convinced me that I didn’t really like hippies anymore — one too many nauseatingly earnest, holier-than-thou references to “the Goddess Mother Earth” will do that to you. And this before my career in massage had even started!
I continued to teach t’ai chi and qigong for a while, and I probably did “energy work” with my clients in my own way until at least 2005.
Bachelor of Health Sciences and other scientific training
I’m currently nearing completion of a Bachelor of Health Sciences degree. Just two more courses to go! My last was a history of science course, which exceeded my high expectations — it was the most entertaining studying I’ve ever done, and I’ve actually continued studying the topic independently since then, just for fun.
Now that I am retired from massage therapy, I am considering pursuing another science degree as well — probably biology.
Creating this website has been an education much like a university degree
I respect academic accomplishment immensely — and yet the effort I’ve put into this website is not just comparable to the effort required to earn a degree, but is almost certainly greater. The volume of work I’ve done is extremely large: about two million words of original articles and tutorials — roughly 10–20 books worth3 — with a large, well-maintained and carefully annotated bibliography.4
Nor was it a passive intellectual exercise. I am not an “armchair therapist.” The publishing process was powered by the clinical challenges right in front of me. For several years, everything on PainScience.com was written for a patient, to answer a question I didn’t have time to address during an appointment. Then, once an article was published, readers from around the world weighed in with their comments, anecdotes, and of course their constructive criticisms, bitter complaints, and even insults. Feedback inspired round and after round of research and revision.
Eventually, though, interactions with experts and readers actually became more important than clinical experiences. Particularly since about 2008, I haven’t been able to publish anything without getting email about it! It’s like having ten thousand editors and critics. My readers won’t let me neglect or forget any important point. Countless times it is my readers who have suggested something I never would have thought of, or reminded me of something I should have.
So, the total educational value of creating this website is unique and incalculable. And, like anyone who tries to study a subject deeply, I have inexorably, inevitably discovered that “the more you learn, the less you know.” I have gone down the rabbit hole, and discovered that there is practically no solid ground at all in musculoskeletal health science — that basically everything about pain and injury is mysterious and controversial and complicated when you put it under the microscope.
Above all, creating PainScience.com has taught me to be extremely skeptical of anyone who thinks that they “know” something. It’s going to take another century of good scientific research before anyone can really “know” anything about chronic pain problems.
Editing for ScienceBasedMedicine.org
At the 2009 Amaz!ng Meeting in Vegas (Skeptics convention) I met famous Yale neurologist Dr. Steven Novella of Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and Science-Based Medicine and chatted him up at a party hosted by Skepchik.org (which was far more party than I know what to do with, and where I also bumped into several other semi-famous people and tried to not stare at what was going on around the pool.) I wanted to know how I could volunteer to help Steve with one of his many worthy projects, especially SBM — since PainScience.com has basically the same mission and values, just with a narrower focus on rehab and pain science.
Steve was gracious and interested. It was a fanboy thrill for me to talk with him, but he gets a lot of empty offers, and I’m sure he was taking me with a pretty large grain of salt. But I stuck to my guns, and 10 years later I’m proud to say that Steve didn’t waste his time talking to me that night.
We now have a well-established working relationship; I am the Assisant Editor for SBM. I regularly work with several contributors, especially Dr. David Gorski, Dr. Harriet Hall, and Scott Gavura. It’s a pleasure and an honour, and being involved in a project like this keeps me interacting with (and learning from) some extremely serious people and big ideas. It’s hard to overstate how valuable those relationships are, and how great it is that I can call up one of my fellow BSW board members, or fire off an email to any one of several geniuses at SBM, and ask, “Check my thinking on this?”
The personal touch
I write a lot about sports injuries, so it would be nice if I had some significant experience with athletics, eh? And I do: a decade of playing and coaching ultimate, a hard-running Frisbee sport, comparable to soccer in its speed and intensity. I have had my fair share of direct, painful, and highly educational experiences with some of the athletic injuries I write about, especially iliotibial band syndrome.
Me playing ultimate in the sun a few years ago.
Not only have I “had my fair share,” it’s pretty clear that I’ve had more than my fair share. I got injured suspiciously often. For many years I was “prone” to injuries and aches and pains, and that’s why I became a massage therapist and then moved on to publishing PainScience.com.
But that tendency was a pain puppy humping my leg compared to the Cerberus of suffering that has been mauling me since 2015. I graduated to the pain big leagues: serious chronic pain, fatigue, and exercise intolerance plus many other bizarre symptoms, all unexplained, making me a fibromyalgia patient. Although I was obsessed with making this website an excellent resource for many years before suffering this ironic fate, obviously it has had a profound influence on my writing. I can emphathize with many of my most desperate readers all too well.
You can read my chronic pain story on my personal blog: “Chronic Pain & Tragic Irony.”
Credentials are important, but they’re not everything
We should all evaluate health ideas on their own merits … not the merits of the messenger. Credentials, “tone,” conflicts of interest all matter — they are factors to consider — but they aren’t critical. Even uneducated jerks with vested interests still say true things sometimes.
No one is more aware than I am of the fact that I’m not a doctor or a scientist. I wish I could throw a nice juicy “MD” or “PhD” behind my name, and I have a lot of respect for those who do: those are careers I seriously considered, but rejected because I lacked the intestinal fortitude, the sheer stamina required to get through the training. And then, ironically, I ended up working just as hard to compensate for my lack of credentials as I would have to earn them in the first place. Life is funny!
I try to never ask my readers to take my word for anything. Instead I do my best to understand and explain the ideas of people who do have impressive credentials — not because we should trust them for that reason alone, but because they are participating in the most interesting and valuable dialogue available. What do they say? Why? Should we believe them? Should we be skeptical? Why? It’s that devotion to the discussion, I hope, that makes me trustworthy in spite of the lack of credentials.
It all comes down to having unusually high journalistic standards for myself and for this website. For more information about that, see:
Appendix: The Continuing Education Nazi: “No credit for you!”
If creating PainScience.com was so dang educational, you’d think I could have gotten some professional continuing education credits for it, right? A few measly CECs?
The CMTBC will give out a few CECs to registrants if they publish in a “recognized” magazine or journal, which includes even amateur publications like their own journal — a silly little rag, an amateurish publication in every way.5 The CMTBC gave me a few credits for a series of articles I published there long ago (which required no continuing education and no more than a few hours of work), but flatly refused to give me even one lousy credit for anything I’ve produced for PainScience.com: tens of thousands of hours of scholarship and writing, which is not only an exotic accomplishment in the profession, but an idealistic service to my profession and to readers around the world.
Not worth one credit!
It doesn’t appear that the CMTBC has much respect for academic study and scholarship.6 I realize it’s partly just a red tape thing, and there’s obviously some par-for-the-course failure to keep up with the times and recognize how important internet publishing has become. But I made these points and others to them, and it was like talking to a brick wall: the CMTBC wasn’t just saying “no credits,” they were actually saying “no discussion.” The chair of the committee responsible mostly just seemed irritated that I was daring to doubt the wisdom of her committee’s decision. I tried to have an amiable chat with her about it, but she was having none of it.
Is it really unreasonable to ask a regulatory body to recognize earnest independent scholarship as evidence of competency and continuing education?
Not only is it reasonable, it’s actually how other professions regulate. For instance, the physiotherapists of BC are actually required to report on their personal efforts to continue their academic education: that’s one of the ways that they measure competency! And that’s standard for many other professions.
Not in massage therapy in BC. Here, my constant scholarship over a decade was considered completely irrelevant to my continuing education requirements.
I worked on my own terms in a home office, as much or as little as I wanted for $100-$150/hour, for years. I had many fiercely loyal clients, regulars that dominated my schedule so much that it was hard to see new clients — but I did, because I was interested in clinical challenges. The waiting list was kind of a joke by the end; a few times I took on clients who had been waiting over a year. Many clients offered to double or even triple my high regular rate, or to travel from other cities. I had little use for that — who needs that kind of pressure?
I was successful mainly because I was a conspicuous rationalist and a relentless troubleshooter. I treated every client to both a fantastic sensory experience and I did everything in my power to help them understand and solve tricky pain problems, often going to extraordinary lengths after appointments to support, educate and brainstorm. So despite the impressive “$100-150/hour” rate — which is what clients actually paid — my real hourly rate was always more like $30-40/hour.BACK TO TEXT
- It’s common for chiropractors and naturopaths in particular to claim that they have “the same education” as a physician. This is not true: doctors learn “far more about practical medicine during the first two or three years after finishing med school than in med school itself, during mandatory supervised experience under intense patient load within hospitals and group practices. No other kind of medical professional has that kind of hands-on training” (pmoran commenting on ScienceBasedMedicine.org). See also: Chiropractor, Naturopath Training Way Less Than Doctors.BACK TO TEXT
- Not all still published and archived — that’s a rough estimate of the cumulative wordage. BACK TO TEXT
- It wouldn’t be that hard or that big a deal to just have a huge list of scientific papers. The annotation difference is huge. I write about the stuff in my bibliography, carefully summarizing and translating it. BACK TO TEXT
- As of some while ago: it may have changed since, I don’t know. Or care. BACK TO TEXT
- In more ways than one. As of 2014, it is still impossible for a BC massage therapist to get all or even a majority of required continuing education credits from academic sources — a large percentage of “practical” credits are required, and most of the sources have always been modality workshops (workshops about therapy fads), which are subject to minimal review or oversight. I always wanted to continue my education … not indoctrination in pet theories. When I checked with a knowledgeable industry source to see if anything has improved since I left the profession, I was told: “It has not changed. It’s still in the dark ages.” BACK TO TEXT