I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about me • more about PainScience.com
Therapeutic massage is expensive but popular and pleasant, with obvious subjective value, and proven benefit for anxiety and depression… but no other clear biological or medical effects. Most notably, the evidence that massage can help back and neck pain is sketchy, and there is no reason to believe that massage can help much with any other common musculoskeletal pain problem.
Training and certification standards for massage therapists are all over the map, and most practitioners have barely scratched the surface of musculoskeletal medicine. The profession is rife with pseudoscience like crank theories about the causes of pain, the myth that massage detoxifies, or that painfully “deep tissue” massage is needed to “release” tissues (which is stressful or even harmful for many patients).
And yet some medical benefits are plausible despite the lack of evidence. For instance, many apparently successful treatments may be due to the effects of pressure on “muscle knots,” which are a likely factor in many common pain problems, but poorly understood (and difficult to treat). And regardless, the effects on mood and mental health are so profound that patients can’t really lose — it’s a valuable service whether it “works” for pain or not.
full article 15000 words
Does massage therapy “work”? What do massage therapists say that they can do for people and their pain, and is there any scientific evidence to support those claims? Massage is a popular treatment for low back pain, neck pain, and tension headaches — can it actually treat them, or does it just take the edge off? In this article, I examine massage therapy in the light of science — not “objectively,” but fairly.1 I go out of my way to be critical of my former profession — I consider it an ethical duty. Health professionals must be self-critical and critical of each other. That is how we improve.2
Although there is a lot of negativity — also known as realism — in this article, I also still recommend massage. It has some plausible medical benefits, even if they are inconsistent and unproven. For instance, patients may get at least temporary pain reduction from any kind of stimulation of “muscle knots,” which are a likely factor in many common pain problems — but poorly understood, controversial, and certainly treatment is unreliable in any case. (I summarize this topic below, but it’s such a huge topic that I have several other large pages devoted to trigger points.)
But, most importantly, the emotional value of touch and the effects on mood and mental health are so profound that patients really just cannot lose — good quality massage therapy is a worthwhile service for anyone who can afford it whether it “works” for anything in a medical sense or not.
I saw a few chiropractors and acupuncturists. But despite some initial short relief, their work seemed to lose effectiveness after a few visits. I went to a massage therapist, whose treatment actually was the opposite of my experiences with neurologists: It was enjoyable. This was the beginning of what I called a foray into “recreational medicine.”
About footnotes. There are 71 footnotes in this document. Click to make them pop up without losing your place. There are two types: more interesting extra content,1Footnotes with more interesting and/or fun extra content are bold and blue, while dry footnotes (citations and such) are lightweight and gray. Type ESC to close footnotes, or re-click the number.
and boring reference stuff.2“Boring” footnotes usually contain scientific citations from my giant bibliography of pain science. Many of them actually have pretty interesting notes.
There are a few “medical” massage therapists out there with some training in orthopedics and rehabilitation. My education in massage therapy here in British Columbia, Canada, was three years long — the longest massage therapy training program in the world. There are also a few other places with two-year programs. A massage therapist with this level of education is certainly the kind that patients should seek out if they want massage as a treatment.
Many massage therapists have almost no training and are not qualified to treat any kind of medical problem.
Unfortunately, such massage therapists are quite rare. Most are poorly trained and uncertified. Most work in spas or resorts and on cruise ships, doing treatments that are infamously fluffy and skin deep, with little therapeutic value other than the comfort of a quiet hour of touching (even though many patients find skin-deep massage to be more annoying than anything else). Most of these therapists are earnest and view themselves as medical semi-professionals, despite their comparative lack of training. It’s actually inappropriate to call them “therapists” at all, and in some places (here) it’s actually illegal — they have to use terms like “bodyworker” or “masseuse.”
Interestingly, the most pleasant massages I have ever had were done by therapists of this type! Compassionate and emotionally mature people are drawn to the work and usually think of it as a bit of a calling — perhaps this affects the sensory quality of the experience more than technical training.
If medical doctors saw even a tenth of the discussions on some of the FB massage groups, they would never take us seriously enough to refer a patient to any of us.
Massage can be studied: we don’t have to know how something works to find out if it works. Do people who are sick or broken get better when massaged?3
But logistics, economics, and devilish details get in the way. Not many scientists are interested in studying massage, while massage therapists don’t have scientific training. It’s an expensive and overwhelming challenge for a massage therapist to make room in their career for some research — few do it, and hardly any have ever done it well. Even when they do, you’d be amazed how hard it is to even find 100 people with the same problem, so studies of that size are almost never done: instead you get studies of 20 or 30 patients, which isn’t generally enough to prove much. Another challenge is that “massage” can mean so many things that it’s hard to know what is even really being studied (lack of standardization of treatment).4
More technically and most seriously, massage research is plagued by a “stark statistical error”: the error of reporting statistical significance of the wrong thing, or the wrong comparison.5Dr. Christopher A. Moyer is a psychologist and a rare example of a real scientist — someone trained and expert in research methodology — who has chosen to focus on massage therapy:
I have been talking about this error for years, and have even published a paper on it. I critiqued a single example of it, and then discussed how the problem was rampant in massage therapy research. Based on the Nieuwenhuis paper, apparently it’s rampant elsewhere as well, and that is really unfortunate. Knowing the difference between a within-group result and a between-groups result is basic stuff.
That error afflicts massage research in particular for the simple, ironic reason that massage is so much “better than nothing” — patients tend to be satisfied with massage regardless of whether it has a medical effect or “active ingredient.” This makes massage study results seem much more medically impressive than they would be if you subtracted all that satisfaction and other “nonspecific” effects.
There is so much uncertainty that it is fair and reasonable to ask if we can really say much of anything about massage based on such incomplete and imperfect evidence. We can, in fact, but it all must be done with our eyes wide open and a lot of qualifiers and hedging of bets. We can’t be certain of anything … but we can certainly be informed by the evidence so far.
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.
(Dr. Moyer thinks it’s even worse than “in its infancy” — he’s called massage therapy research “stunted”!7 Nevertheless, let’s make of it what we can…)
The scientific case for massage therapy
Massage for low back pain is the most studied massage question, and the answer is fairly clear — it probably works at least a little. More below.
Unfortunately, most other evidence about massage benefits is indirect and/or weak. Some research helps us to understand why people like massage, or why it’s likely that there are numerous minor or general health benefits. But there are no smoking guns, no “proof” that it “works” — that is, we have no clinically significant therapeutic effectiveness for a good variety of health problems.
Many things that work may not yet have evidence, but that’s no excuse for overselling them. The soul of scientific, ethical health care is that we don’t push a treatment until there’s good evidence that it really works.
For instance, basic research has shown that touch is neurologically complex and probably has many physiological effects. Skin is fantastically rich in nerve endings — about 100,000 per square centimetre.8 — and in 2009, Swedish researchers identified specialized nerve fibers that respond only to light stroking of a certain speed.9 This reinforces the obvious: massage can provide people with a rich and novel sensory experience, which could be a major mechanism for pain relief and other therapeutic benefits. If massage works, it’s mainly because of the neurology of touch (as opposed to, say, changing tissues).10
For instance, we know that chronic pain in particular tends to get increasingly disconnected from reality (central sensitization), and safe, pleasant, interesting sensations may help us get back on track.11 Such a benefit is both highly plausible and highly speculative. Sadly, there is an absence of useful evidence on the topic. We know many chronic pain patients are drawn to massage like bees to flowers, but we don’t know how much relief is actually possible.
Another interesting indirect example: stretching massages muscles with movement, and so it may feel good for some of the same reasons and share some of the same benefits. And indeed a 2011 study of simple, static stretching showed a clear, good effect on heart rate regulation12 — just from pulling on muscles, which may not be very different from pushing on them. It’s pretty reasonable to guess that movement (and manipulation) of soft tissues has systematic regulatory effects.
While many benefits of massage are still disconcertingly uncertain and hotly debated (by some), there are two truly proven ones. Massage researcher and psychologist Dr. Christopher explains that the only truly confirmed benefits of massage are its effects on mood (“affect”),13 specifically:
massage reduces depression
massage reduces anxiety
Dr. Moyer believes that more importance should be placed on these effects, and that they should even be the basis of “a new subfield for MT research and practice: affective massage therapy (AMT).”
Building on what is already known about the effects of massage therapy on anxiety and depression, everything possible should now be done to better understand and to optimize the ways that massage therapy influences affect, the observable components of an individual’s feelings, moods and emotions.
Christopher A Moyer
Perhaps one of the reasons massage reduces depression and anxiety: it’s relaxing. While not proven as well as you might think, it is a pretty safe bet,14 and the idea is further supported by evidence that massage therapy may reduces blood pressure1516 and helps people to sleep, even when they are under the unusual stresses of hospital care.17 These are all unsurprising … and unremarkable. Relaxation is an important component of wellness and pain management, and I do not underestimate its value, but it is hardly curative.
And, as many critics have pointed out, massage is a super expensive way to relax. 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 … but does it work 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.
Massage is a super expensive way to relax. On average, professional massage therapists charge about a buck a minute. Naps are free.
Many studies done by the Touch Research Institute18 — although almost certainly of generally low quality and strongly biased in favour of massage19 — show many other broadly defined modest benefits to massage therapy in many circumstances—everything from rheumatoid (bad) arthritis20 to cancer21 to autism.22 In a recent study in Annals of Internal Medicine, both massage and ordinary, simple touching have been shown to help cancer patients — indicating that massage was helpful and yet unremarkable at the same time.23 (A more recent and better-designed Korean study was even more encouraging, showing that massage was quite a bit more helpful for patients with the deep, grinding pain of bone cancer than simply receiving compassionate attention.24)
When massage isn’t even massage: non-massage treatments
Massage therapists choose from literally hundreds of different ways of trying to help people with their hands, and many of these ways are not actually “massage” as we usually think of it. The majority of these manual therapies are nearly untouched by science. Many are dubious and obscure, while others are quite familiar and mainstream. Some of them may well be effective for certain things, but the overall usefulness of this mish-mash of techniques ishard to know.
In 2010, my wife is recovered from serious injuries she got in a car accident, including a spinal fracture. Guess what exercises she has to do? Early mobilization and range of motion exercises! This is just mainstream, standard post-injury care. If a massage therapist prescribes it, does that make it massage therapy? Is massage therapy is working for that patient? In a sense, yes …
Early mobilization and range of motion exercises, for instance, will be taught by competent massage therapists to clients with cervical injuries, because they help people get better faster.2526 In fact, the evidence strongly suggests recovery from nearly any injury or surgery is greatly facilitated by early mobilization.27 But that’s not “massage” — it’s something that a few well-trained massage therapists prescribe, and only in specific circumstances.
Lymphatic drainage is an interesting example of a specific massage technique, allegedly good for one thing and not much else: it’s purpose is to reduce swelling. By reputation, it’s the best treatment option for patients suffering from lymphoedema, a serious complication of mastectomy and other surgical procedures. But it’s also obscure, technical, and practiced by no more than a few hundred therapists globally. But it’s not “massage therapy” per se; just a specialized tool that a tiny group of professionals specialize in, some of whom happen to be massage therapists. Oh, and bad news: there’s also recent evidence that it does not work,28 or not nearly as well as we’d like.29
There are several examples of plausible, evidence-based advice and treatments that better-trained massage therapists will know about. But there are also many manual therapy techniques that are surprisingly un-proven, including some extremely popular ones.
Traction is a great example — pulling on the spine. 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.30 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.
Friction massage, another specific type of massage, mainly as a treatment for tendinitis, was pioneered by physiotherapists and adopted unquestioningly by massage therapists. Unfortunately, although it’s a reasonable idea, it has yet to be satisfactorily supported by the evidence — indeed, it has been undermined by it so far.31 Yet the profession clings to friction massage, mostly due to the assumption that it must be good if better-trained physical therapists do it — which is not a safe assumption.32
As dubious as these methods are, massage therapists routinely use techniques that are even more questionable.
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.33 Some massage therapists believe, while many others believe it’s nonsense.34
Craniosacral therapy is another classic example — popular for decades, it is a touch therapy, not “massage,” and it has never enjoyed any respect from the majority of doctors or scientists. It has even been criticized by many alternative health professionals.35 And yet it is sold with great (over!) confidence by countless manual therapists as though it were proven effective.
There are many other examples of weird and silly treatments. See the further reading list at the bottom of this article.
So “massage therapy” is often not limited just to Swedish massage. The other things that massage therapists do are a real mixed bag of standard manual/physical therapies along with many, many other things.
From the mailbag…
READER: I am a massage therapist. You have ruined my brain in a wonderful way. I have had to question and review the basis of my existence as a therapist and a person. Some amusement happened, and I might’ve cried and peed a little bit, too, I don’t remember. I don’t know if I love you or hate you — or, rather, your work.
There are thousands of low back pain books — what’s special about this one? The problem is that 90% of doctors and therapists assume that back pain is structural, in spite of mountains of scientific evidence showing … exactly the opposite. Only a few medical experts understand this, and fewer still are writing for patients and therapists. Supported by 381 footnotes, this tutorial is the most credible and clarifying low back pain information you can find. Ships with a free copy of PainScience.com’s trigger point tutorial! Add it to your shopping cart now ($19.95) or read the first few sections for free!
This topic is covered really (really) thoroughly in PainScience.com’s detailed low back pain tutorial. If you really want to understand massage for low back pain, that’s what you need to read.
Low back pain is a huge health problem, and massage therapists claim to get good results when treating low-back pain. Indeed, low back treatments are the bread and butter of the profession. I’d guess that about 75% of massage purchases are for back pain. The amount of money that patients around the world spend on massage for back pain must be simply huge, at least in the tens of millions annually, and probably much more. As with chiropractic care, massage therapists might not have much of a business model if people didn’t have low back pain.
So it had better work!
And, fortunately, the evidence seems to suggest that it does, at least a little. Over 20 years, an accumulation of scientific evidence has been adding up to a nice conclusion: that massage therapy probably does work for low back pain. That’s the finding of a comprehensive review of the science, from a 2008 review by Furlan et al:36
Massage is beneficial for patients with subacute and chronic non-specific low-back pain in terms of improving symptoms and function … The beneficial effects of massage in patients with chronic low back pain are long lasting (at least one year after end of sessions).
That glowing conclusion was based on just 13 trials (about 1600 participants), and the best data of the lot is merely okay. But massage “wins” anyway. Massage mostly performed quite well in these tests. And, better yet, the results were also positive in the more rigourous tests.37
The largest study of massage for low back pain ever done was published in 2011, and its very credible authors — medical back pain experts Daniel Cherkin and Richard Deyo, in particular — did conclude that “Massage therapy may be effective for treatment of chronic back pain, with benefits lasting at least 6 months,” but those results were uncertain due to a major flaw, and somewhat overstated.38 It seems to me that the results actually damn massage with faint praise. If massage is good for back pain, shouldn’t the results have been a more a bit more impressive? Despite its “positive” results, this study is a bit of a mood dampener.
So, is massage therapy for low back pain “proven” to be effective? Ha! Obviously not by a long shot. But the science is off to a good start — it’s much more convincing than most other popular low back pain therapies. It’s genuinely promising. Remember, once again, this evidence is examined in much greater detail in my low back pain e-book.
Many experts and skeptics seem to like massage (or at least tolerate it), and few are critical
In the summer of 2009, I attended the Science-Based Medicine conference and The Amazing Meeting 7 in Las Vegas: a huge gathering of skeptics, scientists, and critical thinkers. I was the only alternative health care professional at the conference that I know of. I introduced myself publicly to a couple hundred doctors and scientists as a “skeptical massage therapist.” They were delighted, and for the next four days, skeptics approached me regularly to say, “Hey, that was brave! But massage isn’t quackery, is it?”
It's a fair question. Despite the lack of direct evidence, massage generally seems to get a stamp of approval from medical experts. For instance, you can probably trust the opinion of back pain expert Dr. Richard Deyo: he is openly skeptical about most other back pain therapies, but acknowledges that “promising preliminary results of clinical trials suggest that research on massage should be assigned a high priority.”39
Patrick Wall, the eminent neurologist and pain researcher, writes only a single word about massage therapy in his seminal book about pain: “Delightful.”40
Sam Homola, DC, a chiropractic “heretic” and author of Inside Chiropractic: A patient’s guide, writes, “We … know that massage may be as effective as cervical manipulation in relieving tension headache.” (p147) Dr. Homola is extremely critical not only of chiropractic, but of many other alternative health care practices as well, and he clearly does not tolerate irrational claims of therapeutic efficacy. And yet he is content to make this positive statement about massage therapy. That constitutes a good endorsement!
Dr. Stephen Barrett is a prominent anti-quackery activist. In an article on his popular website, QuackWatch, Barrett condemns common non-massage practices in massage therapy, but not massage itself: “ordinary massage and the legitimate practice of massage therapy should not be categorized as quackery.”41 That’s surprising tolerance from such a fierce critic of questionable health care.
The approval of skeptics doesn’t mean that massage “works,” and they may actually be giving massage more credit than it deserves. At TAM7, I repeatedly explained to horrified skeptics — who were trying to give me the benefit of the doubt — that my colleagues routinely either sell or endorse virtually every imaginable form of alternative health care, including the silliest: ear candling, crystal therapy, iridology, gong therapy (look it up!) … you name it, there’s a goofy therapy that many massage therapists “believe” in.
But the general approval of smart, critical experts does indicate that the value of massage itself is strongly plausible — and that simply isn’t true of many other common therapies in the marketplace. In contrast, consider how much anti-quackery activists object to chiropractic!
Massage for fibromyalgia is less promising
Fibromyalgia is a condition of widespread body pain. It’s very existence used to be controversial, but no longer: now the mysteries and controversies swirl around its nature and treatment, which is difficult. But it seems like a massage-friendly condition. Massage is reputed to be helpful, and certainly many fibromyalgia patients seek it out (while others avoid it, finding it too intense and exacerbating). Like low back pain, it seems like massage “should” be able to help with fibromyalgia. Surely massage can help soothe the frazzled nerves of a uninjured patient whose primary symptom is pain? And if it can’t, what good is it?
A 2014 Chinese review of studies by Li et al42 is a good example of what a shabby state massage therapy research is in. Let me be clear up front: I don’t think this paper actually proves anything one way or the other. I think it’s straightforwardly inconclusive. It has a positive sounding conclusion that isn’t really justified and there are major caveats. But tis doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t go get me some massage if I had fibromyalgia. I probably would! But that’s another story. This is about the science, so here goes:
The massage therapy for fibromyalgia that epitomizes the “garbage in, garbage out” problem with meta-analysis. There was virtually no research on this topic worth analyzing to begin with. Trying to pool the results of several weak studies is basically meaningless. This paper epitomizes the “garbage in, garbage out” problem with meta-analysis. There was virtually no research on this topic worth analyzing to begin with.To the extent that the study results are generally inconclusive and ambiguous, the conclusions of any review are going to have more to do with the authors’ opinions and biases than hard data.
This review is somewhat novel in that it includes some Chinese research, but it doesn’t really help. The introduction curiously boasts that “traditional Chinese massage is one of the most ancient massage therapies,” but there is not enough distinctive about Chinese massage that makes it worthy of any focus, and massage is ancient in every culture. This weird, prominently placed statement is a red flag: biased interpretation ahead! (And only one study of traditional Chinese massage made it passed the selection criteria anyway.)
Unsurprisingly, the conclusions here are superficially positive: massage “significantly improved pain, anxiety, and depression in patients with FM.” But that’s statistical significance only, not a clinically significant degree of improvement: the size of the effect is trivial (much smaller than amplitude of the noise in the data). As usual, using the word “significantly” this way is technically correct and defensible, but otherwise misleading to all but the most alert readers.
Also, the conclusion is based in large part on the data about depression and anxiety, which are likely to improve with massage regardless of any effect on fibromyalgia — the one truly evidence-based effect of massage, as discussed above.
And more bad news: despite the seemingly strong positive conclusion, the data is just silent on longer term effects. Only two studies had any follow-up data at all. Without promising data about long-term effects, it would be hard to say massage “works” even if the short term data were much more clearly positive.
Both sides of this research question are highly problematic: fibromyalgia is hard to diagnose or define, and massage is hard to study. Even using official diagnostic criteria, which changed significantly in 2010, there’s a lot of wiggle room. (As Fred Wolfe has put it, “One doesn’t either have fibromyalgia or not have it. There is a gradual transition from the mild to the severe. The point at which we classify an individual as having fibromyalgia is arbitrary, but reasonable.”) The types of massage reviewed here were generally vague and all over the map, from the straightforward (Swedish massage) to trendy-but-meaningless “connective tissue massage” (the idea of isolating or even emphasizing connective tissue in massage is a biological absurdity, like trying to eat the gristle out of a steak without masticating anything else) to rank quackery like “therapeutic touch” (which is literally not massage at all and roughly on par with believing in magic). What a mess.
So here’s my conclusion: whoopty-do. There’s really nothing here, except maybe massage for fibromyalgia being damned by faint, ambiguous praise. So does massage work for fibromyalgia? The only honest answer to the question is, “We don’t know, but probably not very well. Maybe for a few patients.”
When massage goes badly
People think of massage therapy as a “safe” therapy, and of course it mostly is. But things can go wrong. Serious side effects in massage therapy are rare, however, and common side effects are minor. A 2007 survey of 100 massage patients43 found that 10% of 100 patients receiving massage therapy reported “some minor discomfort” in the day following treatment. This would mainly be a familiar slight soreness that is common after a massage — I’m surprised only 10% reported it. The massage must have been quite gentle.
Interestingly, 23% reported unexpected benefits that had nothing to do with aches or pains.
(Also interesting is that this means that most of these patients experienced no noteworthy effect at all, good or bad! Hopefully they enjoyed the massage at the time …)
Another article covers this subject in more detail:
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.
In addition to the many not-really-massage therapies that massage therapists may offer, there are also many claims that massage therapists make about massage itself that are all-too-questionable. The scientific case against massage largely consists of debunking the list of lame claims that define it to a surprising degree — and if you take them away, there’s not a great deal left. Most are just carelessly perpetuated minor myths. Some are not entirely or definitely wrong, but when presented to patients, are often misleading exaggerations and oversimplifications. For instance, massage probably does sometimes modestly increase circulation — just too little and too erratically to matter. It all adds up to a pattern of intellectual laziness in the profession that undermines its credibility and legitimacy.
Tightness matters. “You’re really tight” is a predictable phrase in massage therapy, but it’s mostly meaningless, or just illusory,44 and yet it is often the major rationale for therapy. Tissue texture correlates poorly with pain and other symptoms, and therapists have failed tests of detecting the painful side of low back or neck pain by feel45 — it’s actually an understandable and unimportant failure,46 but it also flies in the face of the popular mythology that therapists can zero in on tissue problems with uncanny accuracy. For more information, see You’re Really Tight.
Massage increases circulation. Massage therapists are particularly fond of claiming that massage “increases circulation,” but it doesn’t, really — certainly not consistently.474849 It’s kind of a silly claim. It doesn’t really matter if massage increases circulation, because even a modest boost would be clinically trivial, dwarfed by the effect of any amount of exercise. Metabolic demand is clearly the primary driver of circulation. The most optimistic perspective — and it is actually good news, albeit with some caveats — comes from a study that showed that a lot of massage improved “venous insufficiency”50 over several weeks. Unfortunately for the good news, regular brisk walking is very likely still better and cheaper.51 Or you could give a massage, instead of receiving one — it’s quite a lot of work!
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.52 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. See the lactic acid section below.
Massage treats delayed onset (post-exercise) muscle soreness. Supposedly, massage therapy can stop that awful soreness that develops after an intense workout, known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) — which is ironic, because massage is also well-known to cause a little next-day soreness. Although some studies have shown that massage can take the edge off DOMS, that’s about as good as it gets53 — perhaps a 30% temporary pain reduction when the planets align. It certainly doesn’t restore your strength any sooner. As with increasing circulation, it’s important to maintain perspective: it wouldn’t matter much even if massage did cure DOMS. Although DOMS can be pretty unpleasant, it’s one of the most trivial of all pain problems, guaranteed to solve itself within three days. On a closely related note…
Fascia matters. Many massage therapists are selling “fascial therapy” to patients. The main idea is that fascia — sheets of tough connective tissue found throughout the body — can get tight and restricting, and needs to be “released” by pulling on it. Fascia science is considered an exciting frontier in manual therapy. Unfortunately, although some fascia biology is interesting, the stuff does not seem to have any properties that are actually relevant to healing and therapy. Key examples of fascia research either fail to support fascial therapy or actually undermine it. Enthusiasm about fascia seems to be an unjustified fad. See Does Fascia Matter? A detailed critical analysis of the clinical relevance of fascia science and fascia properties.
Some readers may not get this joke. It’s a reference to Pulp Fiction; it means, “I’m so sick of hearing about ‘release’ I might shoot the next person who says it.” The term has reached annoying buzzword status when paired with faddish excitement about fascia. While many therapists may find the frustration hard to understand, many professionals really are that fed up with hearing about fascia in general, and release in particular.
Massage reduces inflammation. Um, no. The opposite, if anything.54 According to a sensationalized science news item in early 2012, supposedly massage “reduces inflammation” and “promotes muscle recovery.” But this was a small and technical gene profiling study, several steps removed from clinical reality, trying to explain a phenomenon that doesn’t clearly exist: we already knew that massage doesn’t do much for DOMS.55 All of the evidence about this and DOMS is explored in detail in a separate DOMS article.
Massage gives you an endorphin rush. The word “endorphin” reached buzzword status a few years back and is now often invoked carelessly. Endorphins are a class of neuropeptides that act on the nervous system to reduce pain and increase euphoria. But although massage therapy may reduce pain by a variety of mechanisms, it probably doesn’t do it by putting more endorphins into the bloodstream.56 And, yet again, it wouldn’t be that big a deal even if it were true. Like relaxation, endorphins are good, but they can only do so much — at best, such an effect would mostly just explain the pleasantness of massage itself.
Massage reduces cortisol. This is a much more specific idea than “massage reduces stress.” Cortisol, the “stress hormone,” is justifiably perceived as a villain, and reducing it is often touted as a meaningful rescue from being run-down, chronically anxious or depressed, or in pain. Unfortunately, the evidence that massage actually does anything helpful to cortisol production is conflicting and inconclusive at best, and commonly cited research to support it has major flaws.57 Even in the unlikely event that massage actually does reduce cortisol levels, the phsyiology of stress is much too complex to assume cortisol reduction is in itself a meaningful, good thing. Cortisol levels after a massage do not give a meaningful picture of the organism, and there is no direct relationship between a temporary cortisol reduction and any health benefit. What matters is cortisol levels over time, but even that isn’t exactly straightforward: stress and cortisol have a complex and chaotic relationship regulated by many variables out of our control.
And here’s a much longer one — 8 minutes! — but worth every second, just for the opossum’s nonplussed reactions. But the therapist is a riot, and she effectively lampoons several of the goofier ideas in massage. She’s a genius.
The lactic acid myths (and detoxification in general)
It’s worth devoting a bit more attention to this particularly classic controversy in massage therapy: that massage can aid muscle health and recovery from exercise by some means, usuallu described as flushing metabolic wastes from your muscles. Other “toxins” and unspecified metabolic wastes are often lumped into the myth, but lactic acid is by far the most famous and likely to get mentioned, so that’s what I’ll focus on here.
So, does massage “flush lactic acid”? This is not a hard thing to test — the principle is science-fair simple. Just compare metabolic waste products with and without massage involved. Researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, did exactly that in 2010.58
Wiltshire et al subjected 12 people to intense hand-gripping exercises to boost blood levels of lactic acid and other waste products of muscle physiology. Then they measured those substances with and without the subjects receiving basic sports massage. Their data showed that massage significantly “impairs lactic acid and hydrogen ion removal from muscle following strenuous exercise by mechanically impeding blood flow.”
Massage actually slowed down recovery from exercise, as measured by lactic acid levels. Goodness. That’s the opposite of what everyone wants to believe.
That’s quite a surprising result that applies a firm push to the side of this classic sacred cow of massage lore. It’s only evidence, not proof — but look at that data! Read the abstract! It ain’t subtle.59 And then these findings were backed up in 2012 by a rather high-tech study.60 Massage does not reduce lactic acid levels.
In any case, the whole notion that you want or need to get rid of lactic acid in the first place is just bogus. Lactic acid is not the cause of muscle pain at any time except the immediate aftermath of intense exercise (and probably not even then). Recent (2008-2010) research has shown that muscle fatigue and the “burn” that you feel as you exercise intensely is probably caused by calcium physiology, not an accumulation of lactic acid.61 In particular, lactic acid does not cause soreness the day after exercise — yet another myth, and a particularly bad one that will just not die!62
So presenting lactic acid as some kind of metabolic bogeyman that massage can purge from the flesh is wrong on many levels. This is another nail in the coffin of the daft notion that massage “detoxifies,” and yet another reason to be suspicious of any therapist who talks about “detoxification” — as is sometimes unethically done to rationalize adverse effects of therapy that actually have other causes, including potentially serious conditions.63
What stinging rebuttal do sports massage therapists have to all this, particularly the Queen’s study? Here’s a highlight from their direct reply:
Notably, CSMTA Sport Massage Therapists are trained not to use deep tissue massage in an immediate post event environment. Years of sport massage practice have demonstrated that it does not improve recovery and generally leads to soreness. In fact, this study confirms this position as results showed exactly that response.
Well, so much for controversy! Massage probably has many interesting physiological effects … but getting rid of acid in your blood is certainly not one of them. Nor is drinking extra water going to help. On the contrary, as mentioned above in the myths section, massage is probably modestly “toxifying,” not detoxifying. Other articles delving into detox myths:
Poisoned by Massage Rather than being “detoxifying,” massage may cause a modestly toxic situation in the body ~ 4,500 words
So-called “advanced” techniques: the trouble with modality empires
Another serious general concern about the quality and effectiveness of massage therapy is that there is so much emphasis placed on specific, branded “techniques” and styles. The massage world is fragmented into dozens or even hundreds of these, depending on how you count. It is especially troubling that so many proprietary techniques are hyped as “advanced” and taught in place of genuine continuing (academic) education. This is the serious problem of certification rackets or “modality empires” — selling credibility to therapists in the form of certifications for a treatment method. These techniques are proprietary and profit-motivated, and usually championed and promoted by a single entrepreneur who gets treated like a guru and has legions of dedicated followers (who tolerate criticism rather poorly).
Is there any evidence that any of them actually work better than ordinary Swedish massage? No. They are all unproven and mostly based on shoddy, self-serving clinical reasoning. We can’t even start to judge any of the lesser massage techniques based on the results of good tests (that is, careful comparisons with other treatments, and fake treatments, to see what works best). Such data is thin even for the most prominent massage modalities, and the rest have not been studied at all, or so poorly that it barely counts (eg: “tensegrity-based massage”).
For now, and maybe forever, we can only judge these methods on the basis of the the strength of their defining idea. What’s different about it from other common massage methods? Anything? What can it do that supposedly other techniques cannot? You’d be surprised how many barely count as more than a slight variation on Swedish massage. Even if it is distinctive, is the big idea any better than a pet theory? Most are not. The history of medicine is littered with pet theory corpses. Most treatment ideas do not work out (null hypothesis), even really good ones. And almost everything that is worthwhile about massage is probably thanks to being artfully touched, which you’ll get from most methods.
Next: the bankruptcy of the big idea that is the beating heart of many massage methods, probably most of them.
A great may of the massage modality empires are based on a basic guiding principle or school of thought I call “structuralism” — an excessive preoccupation with biomechanical and postural factors in pain problems, AKA the biomechanical bogeymen. Structuralist techniques are all fixated to some degree on straightening or improving your meat, because they believe that you are crooked or unbalanced in some way. This notion is easy to sell, but the entire school of thought has little merit. It is debatable at best — and debunked nonsense at worst. This is another topic I have covered in (great) detail in another article: Your Back Is Not Out of Alignment: Debunking the obsession with alignment, posture, and other biomechanical bogeymen as major causes of pain.
There are dozens of lines of evidence showing that structural treatment concepts of all kinds have failed to deliver the goods over the decades (see the structuralism article). Structuralist techniques are all fixated to some degree on straightening or improving your meat, because they believe that you are crooked or unbalanced in some way.But one recent large study of massage — the big back pain one described above (Cherkin) — produced particularly clear evidence that structuralist-style massage does not work. (And yet again, there’s an entire other article covering this in greater detail: the remainder of this section is just a summary.)
Researchers compared the effects of garden-variety relaxation massage — classic Swedish — with allegedly more advanced “structural” massage, consisting of an assortment of typical treatment methods. The results were the same, showing clearly that a typical selection of structuralist massage techniques was not one stitch more effective than simple relaxation massage.
A course of relaxation massage, using techniques commonly taught in massage schools and widely used in practice, had effects similar to those of structural massage, a more specialized technique.
All that pretension! All those assumptions and lovely-sounding structural theories. All those expensive technique workshops those therapists went to, and all the extra money they charge real patients for their “expertise” to help pay off their investment in the workshops. It all added up to … nothing. They could have done relaxation massage instead and their patients would have been just as well off.
These results make typical so-called advanced massage really look bad, and they make the popular modality empires and structuralism as a paradigm look ridiculous. The technique gurus push and sell the idea that their methods are dramatically more effective than humble Swedish techniques. If they were even half-right, these “advanced” therapists should have gotten results at least 50% better than their lesser-trained comrades — not just better by a statistically significant margin, but much better, impressively better, decisively better, undeniably better, argument-stopping better, better with bells on …
Instead, it’s like the New York Yankees accepted a challenge from a beer-league softball team and couldn’t do better than a tie score.
The gap between the pretension and the carefully measured results is a nasty condemnation of a huge chunk of an industry, of at least half of all massage the way it is actually being practiced (probably much more). Not good!
Thanks to reader SKY (her actual initials) for sharing this cringe-inducing tale of low palpatory intelligence:
A massage therapist was giving a massage to a middle-aged man, and started working deeply on his upper ribs below his clavicle. She couldn’t get the knot relaxed at all, and kept working harder…
…until he told her she had found his pacemaker.
I’m sure plenty of therapists wouldn’t have made that mistake, but unfortunately it doesn’t surprise me. For all the talk of “magic hands” and the much-touted palpatory prowess of massage therapists, this is hardly the only counter-example I’ve witnessed and heard of. It’s just the worst.
Trigger points: why massage might help, but usually not all that much
So the imperfect evidence shows that massage can maybe help low back pain, and yet the world has certainly not been saved from back pain. What’s wrong? Why isn’t massage immediately, completely, and permanently fixing every back pain client? Because there are many kinds of both massage and back pain. Results of therapy vary widely with the skills of therapists, and with the specific kinds of back pain brought to them. And so, on average:
benefits are modest
benefits are temporary
benefits are inconsistent
It’s not surprising, then, that some studies show that low-back pain is not helped by massage therapy.646566 It’s actually surprising is that massage even works as well as it does.
I have a theory about what massage has going for it. Massage’s primary therapeutic effect on tissue and pain — if any — is not relaxation, toxin removal, or increased circulation, but instead some relief from muscle “knots” — myofascial trigger points. Modest relief. Temporary relief. Inconsistent relief.
But some relief. Your mileage may vary.
“Trigger points” are an awkward notion. They certainly describe a real phenomenon — sore, stiff, aching spots in muscles — but their true identity is unclear, and the science of trigger points is incomplete at best. The phenomenon, whatever it may be, is generally common and particularly tends to crop up as painful complications of many other kinds of painful problems. Trigger points seem to respond to massage, and thus many such problems can be at least partially helped simply by rubbing muscles in the area, creating some illusion that all problems are muscular problems. Back pain is the classic example.67
Myofascial trigger points — muscle knots — are increasingly recognized by all health professionals as the cause of most of the world’s aches and pains. This detailed tutorial focuses on advanced troubleshooting for patients who have failed to get relief from basic tactics, but it’s also ideal for starting beginners on the right foot, and for pros who need to stay current. 176 sections grounded in the famous texts of Drs. Travell & Simons, as well as more recent science, this constantly updated tutorial is also offered as a free bonus (2-for-1) with the low back, neck, muscle strain, or iliotibial pain tutorials. Add it to your shopping cart now ($19.95) or read the first few sections for free!
If this theory is correct, it would explain the perpetual appeal of massage — maybe it can take the edge off a huge variety of problems — but also its inability to work miracles. If trigger points are the main reason massage seems at least a little bit helpful in so many cases, they are also the reason that the results are so unpredictable. The best ways to treat trigger points are simply unknown — all trigger point therapy is educated guesswork. Therapists have greatly variable education, skill, and luck in this process. Most simply aren’t that good at it — they can’t be, because muscle pain physiology is obscure, complex, and basically way out of their league.68
For instance, therapists are unable to reliably diagnose trigger points69 — and it is hard to attempt to treat what you cannot even find. And when you have found them, the best evidence-based approach to treating them is simply unknown. There are dozens of distinct approaches to treating trigger points, and not one of them is much more than an educated guess. And every patient seems to respond differently (for instance, some patients have clear cravings for brutal intensities of treatment that would literally cripple another patient).
On the other hand, hands-on experience is valuable too, and anyone who’s had a good massage is familiar with the seemingly magical way that a therapist can find the perfect spots and “good pain.”
But countless known and unknown factors influence the outcome of any massage — far too many. The result is a weird mix of potential with therapeutic unpredictability and mediocrity.
Personal growth: a massage benefit that may be impossible to define or measure
Massage is a profoundly valuable service regardless of what specific effects it does or does not have on pain, tissues, or pathologies. A pleasant, relaxing experience may have any number of minor therapeutic benefits, such as bringing your blood pressure down. However, the subtler benefits of massage extend well beyond that, into the territory of emotional and psychological benefits that are virtually impossible to define or measure — and surprisingly potent.
Recently, after a long interval without massage, I got a brief chair treatment. Such relief! After 20 years of study, I still don’t understand why massage is such an intense sensory experience — only that it is, and that it matters.
Any massage therapist who has been working for more than a month has observed the curious way that touch provokes introspection, insight, and inspiration. The revelations of contact (“I had no idea I felt this way!”) transmogrify into revelations with broader significance. Intense and/or novel sensations can be a catalyst for personal growth. Above all, massage reminds us what it is like to feel good, and we often desperately need that reminder. Above all, massage reminds us what it is like to feel good, and we often desperately need that reminder. We may then feel highly motivated to reclaim that sense of well-being in the rest of our lives.
Whether it is the clear goal of therapy, or simply a natural side benefit, the sensations of massage can change your sense of yourself, how it feels to be in your skin, and perhaps bump you out of some other sensory rut — which may give you some leverage on your emotional ruts. It is a well-established fact of neurology that posture and facial expressions are strongly coupled to emotional state. It is likely that this phenomenon extends to the physical manipulations of massage: that being manipulated doesn’t just feel pleasant, but also has much more complex effects on emotions and cognition. And personal growth and emotional maturation probably have some clinical relevance to recovery and healing. See Pain Relief from Personal Growth: Treating tough pain problems with the pursuit of emotional intelligence, life balance, and peacefulness.
Economic pressure and the stereotype of hippy health care
Even in places with high training standards, massage therapists almost always have to sell themselves to clients who are paying hard-earned cash, so it’s not hard to see why massage therapists become habitually overzealous in promoting therapeutic services for which there is little evidence, no evidence, or only a mess of controversial evidence.
The road to intellectual dishonesty is paved with good intentions. When I worked as a therapist, there were times when — confession! — I didn’t bother to explain to a patient that I was selling them a dubious approach to therapy There were times when — confession! — I didn’t bother to explain to a patient that I was selling them a dubious approach to therapy. Sometimes it seemed okay because the atmosphere of experimental treatment was thick already, with a desperate patient who had low expectations and was pretty much there to try anything. But it was still dishonest, and I’m ashamed of those times. After all, if patients were my experimental research subjects, shouldn't I have been paying them?
For the unwary, such dishonesty can become routine.
And many are unwary and have no idea that what they are doing is unethical. The stereotype of massage therapy as “hippy health care” is still strong, because a large number of massage therapists, probably the majority in North America, are what many people would describe as “flaky” or leaning in that direction. Such therapists are mostly ignorant of how science works, and actually hostile towards the idea of evidence-based care. They define themselves in opposition to the “mainstream” and distrust of The Man more than by their scientific and clinical knowledge and skills.
If scientifically unsupportable practices are surprisingly common medical massage therapists, they are close to universal among barely-trained and untrained bodyworkers. Many of them aspire to greater skill, but usually don’t do so by studying orthopedics and physical therapy — a project that could occupy anyone for a lifetime — but instead by increasing their repertoire of certifications in proprietary hands-on techniques, most of which are either silly and/or medically unimportant (i.e. pleasant and harmless, but producing no significant therapeutic effect for any important health problem — hot stone massage would be a good example of this).
And that is why most people still go to a doctor or physiotherapist when they have an obvious injury.
So, does massage therapy “work”?
Hopefully it’s now obvious that this is not quite the right question. Does it work for what? What kind of massage therapy? How do we even define the benefits? Is modest, unreliable, temporary relief from muscle pain a significant enough benefit to base a profession on? Do a few subtleties like “relaxation” add up to “works”?
Good massage therapists are the ones with more training and a bigger toolkit. They do what they can with the tools they judge to be the most useful, and they candidly discuss risks, benefits, evidence, and controversies. They don’t just pay lip service to humility as a general principle of alternative medicine — they make it a centerpiece, recognizing that they really are not trained enough to know much.
Meanwhile, bad massage therapists oversell a narrow selection of less effective and mostly faith-based options, and generally lack the training or critical thinking skills to recognize their own limitations. This is no different in principle than any other health care profession.
Powerful bullshit: quackery pollution in massage therapy
The explanation for the title of this section comes right at the end of the quoted passage below. It’s a funny payoff — hang in there for it!
Many times over the years I’ve been told by more rational massage therapists that I’m overstating how much massage therapy is polluted with quackery. I wish I could agree. There are many reasons why massage therapists get this wrong.70
I think the true situation in most areas of the world is realistically described by this passage from Laura Allen’s excellent book, Excuse Me, Exactly How Does That Work? Hocus pocus in holistic healthcare She reports a dizzying litany of nonsense attached to “massage therapy.” Note that hardly a stitch of it has the slightest thing to do with actual massage (hell, not even myths about massage). And note that she is describing the sort of things she used to buy into (literally). Laura Allen is a self-described reformed flake.
We took turns lying down on the classroom tables, closing our eyes, and running our hands over the bodies of our supine partners and then experiencing them doing the same to us. Whatever we felt was referred to as “energy.” We were taught a few techniques for “clearing negative energy” and “balancing the chakras” by “removing the congestion” that exists in the energy field.
These involved a lot of muscle testing, and I’m not talking about orthopedic assessments. I’m talking about asking your arms (that was the terminology) if you should eat this or that food, or hire this or that lawyer, or marry this or that person. My husband and I both ended up taking the advanced program in that, which was 120 hours of learning to read people’s faces and body language, and giving and receiving a lot of what was referred to as “emotional stress diffusions.”
We also went on to do Reiki II, which was optional. That was where we learned how to do distance healing. Yes, I actually believed that you could be in Alaska, and that I could be sitting in my North Carolina home sending you a healing.
The owner of the school collected (and sold) crystals, and used them for healing purposes. I ended up amassing quite a collection of my own, using them to do chakra balances on people, performing psychic surgery with them, and any number of woo procedures. I also purchased magnetic pads for my massage table. I attended homeopathy workshops. Yes, I actually believed that you could be in Alaska, and that I could be sitting in my North Carolina home sending you a healing.
I got heavily into essential oils, which I still love and use today—with the caveat that while I think many of them are useful as folk remedies for various simple ailments, I’m not going to advise someone with cancer that they can cure it with an oil, which unbelievably, I notice massage therapists doing all the time—and worse—on social media.
I stayed there as the administrator and an instructor for five years after I graduated, and during that period of time, I could not possibly even name all the things I went through. I had a lot of psychic readings. I availed myself of EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), an invention of Dr. Mercola, which basically consists of tapping on meridian points in order to relieve emotional negativity, food cravings, and pain. I tried Aura Soma, which is described as “color healing.” I got tuned up with tuning forks, and crystal bowls. I participated in one workshop called Matterspeak, which consisted of sitting around chanting random words, letters, and numbers for 8 hours, as in “1263supercalifragilisti789.” I don’t remember what the purpose of that was and frankly doubt that it had any purpose, other than to enrich the teacher’s pocketbook. If memory serves, she had “channeled” that information from the Atlanteans. I also used the chi machines, the detox foot baths and pads, biofeedback and all kinds of computer programs designed to balance your body, mind and spirit, and most New Agey-sounding things in existence at the time. If it was out there, I tried it. All kinds of “healers” came and went through the school.
While we were on a road trip out west, I collected some buffalo dung—I actually witnessed the buffalo relieving himself, waited until he ambled off, and I jumped out of the car with a zip-lock bag to harvest it for future ceremonial purposes.
Since it had come from a buffalo on the reservation I figured it was more powerful than your average cow dung.
It was, indeed, powerful bullshit!
Appendix: Dissection of a popular massage “science” infographic
In 2012, the Facebook page Anatomy in Motion published this infographic, which quickly went a bit viral with hundreds of likes and shares, as infographics do.
AiM is popular with massage therapists, and the comments on the post were overwhelmingly positive, reflecting the strong tendency in the massage therapy community to uncritically embrace anything sciencey that makes massage sound good. Typical examples (with typical grammar and spelling) reflect rather poorly on the profession:
Keicher Payne wrote, “Stealing and sharing and going to shout it from the rooftops!”
Norma Leos: “Ohh, thank you very much, Im a massage therapist too...Im going to share!! Thank you!”
Caterina Caravello: “Massage is a necessity for a crossfit athlete. Performance enhancement :)”
Christine Reid: “Ty so much for posting this !!! I tried telling my clients for 3 years this !!!!!!!!!!! I LUV IT!!”
Unsurprisingly, there are almost no comments questioning or challenging anything about the image. Julie Onofrio chimed in with one of the only genuine criticisms: “a few of the things on there are not correct — massage has not been proven to increase endorphins or decrease cortisol.” Agreed: most of the infographer features common scientific myths about massage.
Another commenter complains that the infographic makes massage sound too much like an “indulgence” and not enough like “health care.” It’s clear that he wants to make grander claims for massage, regardless of the evidence. Irony fail! If there was stronger evidence to cherry-pick in service of promoting massage as medicine, it would have ended up on this infographic.
Reader and colleague Tony Ingram, who writes the excellent therapy/dance Blog BBoy Science, gave me a heads up about the infographic and asked, “What do you think of this? Exaggerated claims, or about right?” My reply…
Yes, certainly it is a bit exaggerated. It could be a lot worse — hey, at least it’s got references! But it could be a lot better. Citing single cherry-picked studies to support broad treatment claims is weak sauce, even if the picks are good (and clearly not all of these are). The evidence and claims here that are stronger are also less important … and those that are more clinically important are also less sound.
Here’s an example of strong-but-unimportant: it’s highly plausible and fairly confirmed that massage is relaxing (shocker), but paying $1+/min for relaxation alone would be luxury wellness care, not “medicine.” Of course relaxation is a good thing and has some value, but it’s disingenuous to pitch it as “health care.”
The constipation claim is another good example of something that’s probably as clinically trivial as it is certain. Who the hell thinks, “I haven’t had a crap in days: I guess I’d better buy a professional massage!” (I might rub my own belly.) In ten years working as an RMT, I think I did that kind of abdominal massage maybe a half dozen times — demand for the service was rather low. I’ve been writing about the science of massage even longer, and this is literally the first time the word “constipation” has ever appeared on this website — because who cares?
Flipping it the other way, the infographic features a particularly obvious example of an important-but-weakly-supported claim: boosting “athletic performance.”
No question: actually boosting performance would be a big deal, a humungous deal! But the cited evidence doesn’t remotely substantiate such a mighty claim. Even if we take that evidence at face value, it’s a huge and oversimplified reach to conclude that “a little increased range of motion” constitutes a meaningful effect on athletic performance as a whole. I can increase my ROM with a few seconds of stretching, too … and stretching does not enhance performance (look it up).
Now, think back to Caterina Caravello’s comment above, asserting that massage is a “necessity” for athletic performance. What would all the athletes who win medals without massage make of that?
So obviously (duh) this infographic was designed to score medical credibility points for massage, and research was cherry-picked to support that goal, and there wasn’t any chance that any discouraging words or science was going to make the cut! But it something like this will get applause from almost everyone who sees it, because people love to love massage, because massage is a lovely experience for all kinds of reasons.
But whether or not it massage is good medicine is still an open question, and this infographic is really just a bit of mild-mannered propaganda. Amatereurish boosterism never does a profession any favours. Paying lip service to science for promotional purposes cheapens it and impedes progress and understanding. Enthusiastically approving of such poor-quality information is a disturbing sign of how far the profession of massage therapy still has to go before it can be taken seriously as a full partner in health care.
Appendix B: Skeptical massage therapists unite
This article thoroughly discusses massage therapy in a way that is quite unusual in the profession: a skeptical, critical-thinking sort of way. This is normal in modern medicine, where critical self-appraisal is a formal part of the professional culture.71 And yet there are some skeptical massage therapists! We do exist! For instance, the Skeptical Massage Therapists Facebook group has quickly grown into the best discussion group available — although there’s not much competition! — for massage therapists who also happen to be scientific skeptics. Founder and moderator Brantley Moate:
To be a member, you need to be a massage therapist and you actually know you’re a scientific skeptic. It’s not a place for massage therapists to find out what scientific skepticism is.
Scientific skeptics are the kind of people who would go to an amazing meeting, or less-amazing nights with some other skeptics in the pub. We are used to being misunderstood. Almost no one really knows what scientific skepticism is all about.
I doubt that I personally know any skeptical massage therapists who aren’t already there, if they want to be, but I may have readers who qualify. Such skeptics are obviously a rarity in massage therapy, a profession notorious for attracting people with New Age and fringe science beliefs. The kind of people who would happily pay through the nose for tickets to see Deepak Chopra talk and think Mercola.com is a good source of health care information.
Modern social media excels at bringing together special interest groups with low-density populations. This is one of the best examples I can think of.
What’s new in this article?
This is one of the oldest articles on PainScience.com, with bits and pieces of it dating back to the late 90s (though all edited and revised at some point). The update log is woefully incomplete, but that it will probably improve in 2015 and beyond.
Science update (, section #2.2) — Important good-science-news additions about the effects of stretching on heart rate regulation, and the effects of massage on anxiety and depression (it reduces them).See section #2.2, The scientific case for massage therapy.
Legacy updates from before 2013
— Minor update regarding DOMS.
— A new item at the end of the myths section: “fascia matters.” And improved information about detoxification myths.
— More on “tightness matters”: interesting evidence that massage therapists cannot reliably find the side of pain by feel.
— Added a new massage myth that “tightness matters,” with an interesting footnote about palpatory pareidolia.
— Added references to the widely reported Crane et al study showing that massage supposedly “reduces inflammation.” It does not.
— Added a list of “awkward questions” to demonstrate how hard it is to study what you can’t define. Also a few tweaks of related content.
— Added reference to a new article explaining common statistical errors that particularly afflict massage therapy research. Thoroughly revised the section, “The trouble with studying massage,” right near the top of the article.
— Major revision, with focus on adding evidence about the effectiveness of massage therapy for back pain, updating numerous citations, and better explanations of how massage research works (or doesn’t).
PS Does Arnica Cream Work for Pain? — A detailed review of popular homeopathic (diluted) herbal creams like Traumeel, used for muscle pain, joint pain, sports injuries, bruising, and post-surgical inflammation
Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual, a book by Janet Travell, David Simons, and Lois Simons. amazon.com The ultimate myofascial pain syndrome reference, the product of decades of extraordinary dedication by two doctors famously devoted to the subject of soft tissue pain. The two-volume set is also brilliantly illustrated. The introductory chapters constitute an excellent overview of the subject, albeit a dauntingly technical one. Note: although a landmark and important text, more recent information has been published in Muscle Pain: Understanding its nature, diagnosis and treatment by Siegfried Mense and David Simons.
Job’s body: a handbook for bodywork, a book by Deane Juhan. amazon.com If you can manage the density of the language, Job’s Body is thick with creative insights into physiology and healing. Perhaps too many of them, and perhaps too creative — but very stimulating!
Juhan tries to explain why bodyworkers often seem so uncannily effective. This is a job that certainly needed doing.
In trying to explain bodywork, Job’s Body is a philosophical introduction to the science of the human body — a physiology textbook with a heart. Many chapters are devoted to pure science — just barely accessible to the hard-reading layperson, and mainly offering perspective for the health care professional.
Still more chapters are devoted to pure philosophy. Juhan frequently dares to ask (and answer) the hardest questions in the health sciences: why and so what?
I took a workshop with Juhan many years later. I’m sorry to say that he seemed cocky and jaded. My main impression was that he was bored and had drunk to much of his own Kool-Aid. And the introductory chapters of this book do a better job of explaining some of the possible subtle benefits of massage therapy than anything else I’ve ever read. Read an excerpt.
“Massage Therapy: Riddled with quackery,” a webpage on QuackWatch.org. Scientifically unsupportable ideas are common among massage therapists, according to Dr. Stephen Barrett. He avoids a blanket condemnation of the profession, conceding that “ordinary massage and the legitimate practice of massage therapy should not be categorized as quackery.” However, “many therapists make claims that go far beyond what massage can accomplish. And even worse, massage therapy schools, publications, and professional groups are an integral part of the deception.” He provides many references to support this view.
I agree with almost every detail of the article and wrote a letter of support to Dr. Barrett, which is published as an addendum to it. That said, the article does neglect some nice things that can be said about massage therapy, and it contains a few minor errors. But I applaud the intent and embrace and welcome most of the criticism. I wish it weren’t mostly true, but I believe that it is.
I made my living selling massage therapy services for many years. However, an acknowledged bias and an honest attempt to be fair-minded can result in a valuable informed opinion, perhaps better in many ways than pretending to be objective or balanced, which are highly over-rated as journalistic virtues. BACK TO TEXT
This is exactly the right idea and the right spirit. It is not expressed nearly often enough, or firmly enough:
The research and subsequent change in some massage beliefs is not to make therapists feel belittled or inferior … it’s about making us more knowledgeable, therefore making us more professional and better respected.
Tests of overall effectiveness (clinical trials) are not difficult to cook up in principle: just take a hundred people with a certain kind of problem, give some kind of reasonably appropriate massage to fifty of them, give a neutral treatment to the other fifty, record the results, and report them. It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t have to be perfect to detect what should be a reasonably strong effect — if those massaged 50 people aren’t better off, how good can massage be? A great deal more precision is required to answer exactly what kind of massage works how well for what — more on that in a moment — but in broad strokes, it’s not a difficult problem. Not in principle. BACK TO TEXT
It is hard to study what you can’t define… and it is extremely difficult to define massage precisely. Many possible questions arise! What kind of massage therapy? What methods? Could a combination of methods be effective where another combination fails? How well trained is the therapist? Are “advanced” techniques better than relaxation and Swedish techniques? Or maybe the basics are the basics because they really work? How much massage therapy? Could five sessions succeed where two would fail? Is one appointment “massage therapy,” or does it really need more? Could nine sessions actually be better still? Or perhaps counterproductive? Can anything be done with short sessions, or are long ones needed? If massage works, how much of the benefit can be attributed to non-massage elements like bedside manner, relaxation, and reassurance? How much do those factors define massage? What if massage didn’t work at all, or very poorly, without them? Would that mean “massage” works because it’s a great way of delivering a nice experience? Or that nice experiences “work” and the massage is irrelevant? What if massage therapy of a certain type for a specific condition was only effective 20% of the time? 60%? 80%? At what point is it “worth a shot”? (And worth the expense?)
Efficacy of “massage therapy” just cannot be meaningfully evaluated as a whole — it is just too broad and flexible a term.
Technically, it’s a failure to do an analysis of variance (ANOVA). This is actually strongly relevant to massage research. For a surprisingly interesting detailed explanation, with comic strips and funny videos, see Statistical Significance Abuse. BACK TO TEXT
I’ve often said that massage therapy research is in its early stages. And after thinking about that more today, I’ve realized it’s worse than that. Massage therapy research is stunted, and not showing signs that it is ready to progress. Some might disagree, and would point to the increasing number of massage therapy studies. (I’ve charted it myself in at least one paper I’ve published, and there is no doubt that the number of papers on the subject is increasing.) But I would counter by noting that there is no discussion in the field. The studies are conducted and published in isolation. They are not often being critiqued, and researchers with different theories and perspectives are not addressing each other in the literature or even at conferences.
This geeky basic neurology experiment produced a rough estimate of the density of nerve endings in human glabrous (hairless) skin: about 6000 per square centimetre, so a whole hand probably contains about as many as the maximum capacity of the largest stadiums in the world. They measured an average nerve diametre of about 3 thousandths of a millimetre.
Bio-medicine.org reports: “Nerve signals that tell the brain that we are being slowly stroked on the skin have their own specialised nerve fibres in the skin. The discovery may explain why touching the skin can relieve pain.” This discovery is important to touch therapies, of course. It strongly implies that neurological responses to touch have considerable complexity.
Massage-StLouis.com [Internet]. Sanvito A. How Does Massage Work?; 2016 December 31 [cited 17 Jan 5]. While the skin is indeed “the surface of the brain,” there are of course many sensory receptors in deep tissues as well. Massage therapy mainly interacts with the nervous system via the skin, which is extremely richly innervated, and the importance of this is often underestimated or discounted entirely… but it’s not limited to that. For instance, I’ve always particularly loved having my joints moved passively, which creates a flood of proprioception — movement/position sensation — that my brain didn’t initiate, which feels weird in a delicious way. BACK TO TEXT
We cannot trust our eyes, or our pain. Pain is a lot like these amazing illusions — that is, it is warped by our expectations and point of view (see Pain is Weird). Unlike these clever models, though, we can’t turn it around to see what’s really going on. And trying to see through the illusion, trying to believe that there’s nothing much actually wrong with our tissues (often true), is even more difficult than seeing through these illusions. But that challenge is what recovery is all about: trying to change our expectations and point of view with interesting new sensations and movements. Massage therapy may be one of the very best sources of the sensory data needed to change our perspective. BACK TO TEXT
multiple-set flexibility training sessions enhanced the vagal modulation and sympathovagal balance [that’s good] in the acute postexercise recovery, at least in subjects with low flexibility levels. … stretching routines may contribute to a favorable autonomic activity change in untrained subjects.
This seems like a fairly straightforward bit of good-news science about stretching. It’s not a surprising idea that movement would have some systemic regulatory effects (motion is lotion, use it or lose it), but it’s nice to see some corroboration of that common sensical notion, and it’s also nice to know that perhaps just stretching did this (to the extent we can learn anything from a single study). If true, it makes for nice evidence to support a general stretching habit, yoga, mobilizations, really any kind of “massaging with movement,” and probably even massage itself.
Two general effects [of massage, MT] are well-supported by scientific data and widely agreed-upon by MT researchers. Quantitative research reviews show that a series of MT treatments consistently produces sizable reductions of depression in adult recipients. The effects of MT on anxiety are even better understood. Single sessions of MT significantly reduce state anxiety, the momentary emotional experiences of apprehension, tension, and worry in both adults and in children, and multiple sessions of MT, performed over a period of days or weeks, significantly reduce trait anxiety, the normally stable individual tendency to experience anxiety states, to an impressive degree in adults.
Together, these effects on anxiety and depression are the most well-established effects in the MT research literature. They are especially important for us to understand not only for their own sake, but also because anxiety and depression exacerbate many other specific health problems. In other words, it is reasonable to theorize that quite a few specific health benefits associated with MT may actually be “second-order” effects that are a consequence of MT’s “first-order” effects on anxiety and depression.
This study evaluated the effectiveness of a 15-min. on-site massage while seated in a chair on reducing stress as indicated by blood pressure. 52 employed participants' blood pressures were measured before and after a 15-min. massage at work. Analysis showed a significant reduction in participants' systolic and diastolic blood pressure after receiving the massage although there was no control group.
The no-brainer conclusion: “Back massage is useful for promoting sleep in critically ill older men.” Most likely that sentence could stop at “promoting sleep” and it would still be correct, but I understand the need for precision.
The Touch Research Institute has conducted about one hundred studies showing the positive effects of massage and touch therapies. I am mistrustful of such consistency. I believe the Touch Research Institute designs studies in such a way that a positive spin on touch therapy is inevitable. For instance, many of their papers are particularly afflicted by two statistical errors: confusing statistical and clinical significance, and comparing the wrong things to arrive at “significance.” (See Statistical Significance Abuse: A lot of research makes scientific evidence seem more “significant” than it is.) Also, conclusions in the abstracts of these papers are often so broadly stated as to be uninteresting: one of their studies concludes, for instance, that the subjects “report satisfaction.” People are often satisfied with snake oil — that doesn’t mean it works! As such, in my own reading, I have taken Touch Research Institute papers with a grain of salt: not to be ignored, but not to be taken too seriously, either. BACK TO TEXT
This study showed that “massage may have immediately beneficial effects on pain and mood among patients with advanced cancer” and that it didn’t do much more than simple touch… but they both helped. This is both a scientific blow for massage therapy and a nice validation at the same time. It doesn’t say much for the ability of trained therapists to do any more for a cancer patient than a compassionate nurse can. But it also reinforces the reassuring idea that any kind of touch is therapeutic, and that skill may not be a critical factor in the value of massage therapy to some patients. (Over the years, I’ve seen many amateurs who could give excellent massages simply by virtue of their empathy and attentiveness. Could massage “skill” be mostly just an extension of social skills? Might be.)
Incomplete blinding is a significant weakness in the study. The massage therapists knew what treatment they were giving: “possibly leading to reporting bias and the overestimation of a beneficial effect.”
From the abstract: “Results showed that eight weeks after the accident the degree of improvement seen in the actively treated [early mobilization] group compared with the group given standard treatment was significantly greater ....”
From the abstract: “Advice to mobilise in the early phase after neck injury reduces the number of patients with symptoms at two years and is superior to manipulative physiotherapy. Prolonged wearing of a collar is associated with persistence of symptoms.”
My article, Mobilize!, goes over this subject in much more detail and presents considerably more evidence. Early mobilization is one of the most unambiguous evidence-based recommendations a therapist can make. BACK TO TEXT
This is a test of manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), a gentle massage-like technique that allegedly reduces swelling by stimulating the natural mechanisms that drain excess fluids from between cells. Testing MLD is fairly easy and interesting, because it’s supposed to have such an objective, measurable effect.
So how did five doses of MLD work on 30 patients with who’d just had knee surgery (total knee arthroplasty)? Compared to 30 others who got a placebo.
It didn’t work! No difference. MLD bombed this straightforward test. Alas.
It did reduce pain quite a bit right in the early stages, which is a nice demonstration of something we already know — gentle touch is quite soothing — but does little itself to justify MLD as a modality.
A bit of good news: knee passive flexion contracture was a little reduced in the MLD group after 3 months. That’s a nice result, but a modest one, and not pertinent to the central claim of MLD.
Some procedural notes: swelling was measured all fancy-like, “using bioimpedance spectroscopy and volume.” All patients “followed the standard rehabilitation program of the department,” including ice, passive motion, strengthening, and getting walking. And the MLD treatments were done by therapists we have every reason to have confidence in: “five physiotherapists with experience in MLD who completed two training sessions for standardization. The same therapist performed all of the study treatments for a given patient. The treatment was standardized according to the recommendations of Földi and Kubik.”
This 2015 review of six studies of manual lymphatic drainage for breast cancer-related lymphedema is about as on-point as we can hope for if we want to know if MLD works. BCRL is the indication for which MLD is best known. Note that swelling reduction is by far the most important outcome measure.
And it’s a tepid mix. The conclusions aren’t wholly negative, but they are way less positive than they should be. There is some promising evidence here that suggests MLD probably helps some of these patients at least a little bit some of the time, but even that “needs to be confirmed.” And a couple studies showed some modest swelling reduction — but really not that much, or not even a statistically significant result.
But mostly the evidence is a classic example of damning with faint praise. There’s definitely a failure of MLD to demonstrate the kind of clear reductions in swelling we would like to see based on its reputation.
Studies contradict each other. A 1985 study by Zylbergold makes traction look good for neck pain, but a nearly identical study by Borman in 2008 came to the opposite conclusion. Two recent, good quality reviews of all such research have concluded that adequate evidence simply does not yet exist (see Graham and Graham). BACK TO TEXT
This may be the first ever scientific test of friction massage for tendinitis. In 1989 (when I was graduating from high school!), “No clinical trials, either controlled or uncontrolled, reporting the effectiveness of friction massage could be found.” From the conclusion: “This study does not support the notion that either deep friction massage or phonophoresis are superior to ultrasound in the treatment of lateral epicondylitis at the elbow.”
This paper is an entertaining chapter in the history of the science of alternative medicine: a child’s science fair project published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showing that “twenty-one experienced therapeutic touch practitioners were unable to detect the investigator's ‘energy field.’ Their failure to substantiate TT's most fundamental claim is unrefuted evidence that the claims of TT are groundless and that further professional use is unjustified.”
Therapeutic touch practitioners could not demonstrate any ability to detect a person by feeling their aura, let alone manipulating it therapeutically. The test made them look ridiculous.
Many students at my school were actually angry that things like therapeutic touch were even being taught. I recall some heated debates between skeptical students and more “open-minded” instructors and school officials. It may surprise you to hear that I was not one of the skeptics back in those days — it was only just starting for me then. BACK TO TEXT
Craniosacral therapy has never been studied properly; the scanty science that does exist is firmly at odds with it. And it’s outrageously implausible that a therapist could have a significant and reliable therapeutic effect by lightly touching the skull and sacrum. For more information, see Does Craniosacral Therapy Work?BACK TO TEXT
Therapies that don’t really work tend to show precisely the opposite pattern: the better the test, the worse the result (because, of course, a useless therapy can’t impress you in a fair test). But in the case of research for low back pain, the results are strong even in the best of the studies done so far. And that’s how it should be. If a therapy works, it should be fairly easy to prove it. BACK TO TEXT
They found that 60% of massage patients seemed to improve about 30% — about a 2-point drop on a 10-point pain scale, compared to a 1-point drop for patients who did nothing — but due to a flaw in the study, the gains were probably not nearly that good. Also, the gains were also lost steadily after the last massage, and there were only very small differences between groups after six months, and no differences at all after a year. BACK TO TEXT
Scientifically unsupportable ideas are common among massage therapists, according to Dr. Stephen Barrett. He avoids a blanket condemnation of the profession, conceding that “ordinary massage and the legitimate practice of massage therapy should not be categorized as quackery.” However, “many therapists make claims that go far beyond what massage can accomplish. And even worse, massage therapy schools, publications, and professional groups are an integral part of the deception.” He provides many references to support this view.
I agree with almost every detail of the article and wrote a letter of support to Dr. Barrett, which is published as an addendum to it. That said, the article does neglect some nice things that can be said about massage therapy, and it contains a few minor errors. But I applaud the intent and embrace and welcome most of the criticism. I wish it weren’t mostly true, but I believe that it is.
10% of 100 patients receiving massage therapy reported “some minor discomfort” in the day following treatment. 23% reported unexpected, non-musculoskeletal benefits. Interestingly, that means that most of these patients experienced no noteworthy effect at all, good or bad!
This study did not include enough people to rule out the possibility of rare and/or serious side effects of massage therapy.
For contrast, a more general study of all kinds of manual therapy (see Carnes), including massage, found that 20-40% of treatments will cause some kind of unpleasantness, side effect, or “adverse event” in medicalspeak.
Straightforward palpatory pareidolia. Pareidolia is a type of illusion or broken perception in which a vague or obscure stimulus — i.e. subtle textures under your skin — is perceived as if it was clear and distinct. Pareidolia is what makes naive Christians spot Jesus in a T-shirt stain, and why Percival Lowell thought he could see canals on Mars. BACK TO TEXT
Researchers tested two physicians with training in manual medicine to see if they could detect the painful side of the neck or back by touch alone, feeling for tension in the spinal muscles. In almost two hundred patients, they identified the correct side of 65% of lower back pain and 59% of neck pain — only slightly better than chance.
An odd anomaly occurred in the difference between the left and right side: the examiners were more accurate on the right side with back pain, but better on the left side with neck pain.
The results are underwhelming. Although they did a little better than just guessing, the results suggest that it’s difficult even for expert examiners to detect the location of neck and back pain by feel. As well, they were only attempting to detect the side of pain. Imagine how much worse their performance would have been if they had had to identify the location more precisely, or if the pain could have been anywhere or nowhere. So they barely passed the easiest possible test, and probably would have failed a harder one and done no better than guessing.
An obvious weakness of the study is that only two examiners (of uncertain skill) were tested, and so the results are inconclusive. One would still hope for a better detection, though, even from professionals with only average examination skills.
The ability to detect the painful side by feel alone is difficult for reasons that make sense, consistent with what we actually know about how neck and back pain work— that is, they don’t cause obvious, consistent changes in tissue texture and they correlate poorly (really barely at all) with obvious structural problems. Being able to detect nonexistent signs actually an important diagnostic skill. BACK TO TEXT
The skin does get flushed and warm, of course. That’s just superficial, cutaneous hyperaemia: capillaries in the skin respond to mechanical stimulation by dilating (which is likely an immune function: the body transports blood to the site of possible skin breakage). Blood is hot, so the skin gets quite toasty! But it’s clinically trivial and superficial only, and it has nothing to do with the intention of the claim that massage works by increasing circulation. BACK TO TEXT
Note that this study compares a more vigorous sports massage style with more common Swedish petrissage techniques. Vigorous massage did indeed show significantly increased circulation! However, this technique is rarely used — the vast majority of Registered Massage Therapists in British Columbia rarely treat their clients with vigorous sports massage techniques, yet they still have a habit of claiming that massage increases circulation.
This study compared the effects of massage and minimal exercise therapy on poor circulation (venous insufficiency) in post-menopausal women. Superficially it looks like a good news story for massage, and in some ways it is. Massage did have a statistically significant positive effect and seems to have “increased circulation” in one sense (something I have often called a myth). But there’s a lot to consider here.
Only the statistical significance of the results is touted in the abstract, not their size. This almost always means a real effect that was too small to emphasize. So I read the full paper and, sure enough, the effects of massage were positive but modest at best (and in many cases trivial). There were a lot of measures of success, and none changed all that much. The phrase “damned with faint praise” comes to mind, as it so often does in massage science.
Also, some of the measures also seemed barely useful. If I got that much massage, I’d probably feel like my quality of life had improved too — but I’m not sure that would have much to do with improving my mild venous insufficiency.
And it was really a lot of massage (expensive in the real world). And the pure “kinesiotherapy” treatment was super basic — this control group barely did more than wiggle their toes and clench their thighs, so it’s hardly surprising that they didn’t improve much. I wish the study had included a third group doing more exercise, perhaps a half hour of brisk walking per day. I think there’s an excellent chance walkers would have performed as well or even far better than massage. And walking is notably a lot cheaper than massage.
Massage is not a detox treatment. If anything, it’s the opposite! Post-massage soreness and malaise (PMSM) is probably caused by mild rhabdomyolysis (“rhabdo”). True rhabdo is a medical emergency caused by muscle crush injuries. But milder stresses cause milder rhabdo — even just intense exercise can do it. And massage! We know this from a good case study, common exertional rhabdo, and the similarities between PMSM and ordinary exercise soreness. A rhabdo cocktail of waste metabolites and by-products of tissue damage is probably why we feel cruddy after any intense biological stress or trauma — but they can’t be “flushed” away by massage (or by drinking water). See Poisoned by Massage: Rather than being “detoxifying,” massage may cause a modestly toxic situation in the body.BACK TO TEXT
This review of 35 tests of treatments for delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is strongly consistent with my own past interpretations of the research: basically, nothing works. Massage is “slightly effective” but “its mean effect was too small to be of clinical relevance.” The evidence for cryotherapy, stretching, and low-intensity exercise is not promising, but technically still inconclusive: more study needed.
This study is the source of a new massage myth that massage reduces inflammation. Inspired by the doubtful notion that “massage may relieve pain in injured muscle” after intense exercise, researchers looked for changes in the proteins that cells constantly make (“gene expression”). They compared muscle tissue samples with and without massage and concluded that “massage therapy appears to be clinically beneficial by reducing inflammation and promoting mitochondrial biogenesis.” Massaged muscle was found to be producing different amounts of five protein related to inflammation and promoting the growth of mitochondria (cell power plants). It was an interesting, technically demanding, and worthwhile experiment, and it’s nifty that there was any difference in gene expression in massaged muscle.
Unfortunately, the results of this study were actually negative: the data showed that massage has no significant effect on gene expression in muscle cells. There are several major problems with the study: the sample size was extremely small; the number of changes they found was trivial (and dwarfed by what exercise causes); the size of the differences was barely statistically significant—and short-lived, too; they measured genetic “signals” and not actual results, and guessed about their meaning; and we already know from clinical trials that massage doesn’t work any miracles for soreness after exercise, so what is there for the data to “explain”? Despite all of these problems, the results were spun as an explanation for how massage works in general — in the paper itself, the abstract, the journal’s summary, the press release, and interviews. Consequently, the results have been widely reported and discussed as if it is now a scientific fact that massage actually does reduce pain and promote recovery, and the only question was “how?” It’s a debacle.
It is frequently asserted that massage therapy (MT) reduces cortisol levels, and that this mechanism is the cause of MT benefits including relief from anxiety, depression, and pain, but reviews of MT research are not in agreement on the existence or magnitude of such a cortisol reduction effect, or the likelihood that it plays such a causative role. A definitive quantitative review of MT's effect on cortisol would be of value to MT research and practice.
Plus, this is not the kind of study where a large number of subjects is needed to be convincing. Of course, replication and more subjects are always a critical part of science. But the claim of detoxification is what we call a “brittle” claim — it breaks easily, because anything less than a clear positive effect is not enough to impress anyone. For brittle claims, even just a lack of effect is always news, because there should be a worthwhile effect, according to the claim. In this case the claim is that massage meaningfully reduces lactic acid … and in this experiment, it didn’t just fail to have an effect, it had the opposite effect. That evidence is definitely news, whether it’s proof or not. BACK TO TEXT
This is the Crane et al gene profiling study cited above with regards to muscle soreness (DOMS). Although the study was not particularly about lactic acid, they checked and found that “there were no effects on muscle lactate levels” with massage. (Ironically, their findings may actually replace the lactic acid myth with another myth: that massage “reduces inflammation,” which was their primary exaggerated interpretation of their results.) BACK TO TEXT
One of the great unanswered questions in physiology is why muscles get tired. The experience is universal, common to creatures that have muscles, but the answer has been elusive until now.
Scientists at Columbia say they have not only come up with an answer, but have also devised, for mice, an experimental drug that can revive the animals and let them keep running long after they would normally flop down in exhaustion.
For decades, muscle fatigue had been largely ignored or misunderstood. Leading physiology textbooks did not even try to offer a mechanism, said Dr. Andrew Marks, principal investigator of the new study. A popular theory, that muscles become tired because they release lactic acid, was discredited not long ago.
This is a review of four studies, all of which were burdened with “major methodological flaws.” It concludes that “Massage seems to have some potential as a therapy for LBP. More investigations of this subject are urgently needed.” (Such as the large study finally published in 2011: see Massage Therapy Kinda, Sorta Works for Back Pain.)
Trigger points are probably involved to some degree in most cases of low back pain, which makes them a great target for therapy. At the same time, other things can certainly be wrong in the low back, such as injuries and arthritis. BACK TO TEXT
I learned virtually nothing about these topics in 3000 hours of training. 99% of what I know, I’ve learned through intensive post-graduate study — not just clinical experience. BACK TO TEXT
This paper is a survey of the state of the art of trigger point diagnosis: can therapists be trusted to find trigger points? What science has been done so far? It’s a confusing mess, unfortunately. This paper explains that past research has not “reported the reliability of trigger point diagnosis according to the currently proposed criteria.” The authors also explain that “there is no accepted reference standard for the diagnosis of trigger points, and data on the reliability of physical examination for trigger points are conflicting.” Given these conditions, it’s hardly surprising that the conclusion of the study was disappointing: “Physical examination cannot currently be recommended as a reliable test for the diagnosis of trigger points.”
This is essentially the same conclusion as a review the year before by Myburgh et al.
Example: Despite their rationality, these therapists are usually factoring out several snake oils, because they assume they are legit, and have never gotten around to examining that assumption. For instance, they may consider energy work to be nonsense, but assume that acupuncture is evidence-based — a common and understandable mistake, but a mistake nevertheless. See Does Acupuncture Work for Pain?. BACK TO TEXT