Whether it is the actual goal of therapy, or just an intriguing side effect, the sensations of massage can change our sense of ourselves, how it feels to be in our own skin, and perhaps bump us out of some other sensory rut82 — and that, in turn, may give us some leverage on our emotional ruts. The sensory experience may have 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).
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 pleasantly distract patients and maybe 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 And, alas, massage therapists are guilty of an astonishing amount of bullshit.
The psychoanalyst David Morgan, of the Institute of Psychoanalysis, believes that for many of us this deadening retreat to our screens is both a reason for and a consequence of the fact that we no longer know how to relax and enjoy ourselves. Our screens and what we use them for are all techniques of distraction, he says. “People have got so used to looking for distraction that they actually cannot stand an evening with themselves. It is a way of not seeing oneself, because to have insight into oneself requires mental space, and all these distraction techniques are used as a way of avoiding getting close to the self.”
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.
A boyfriend or girlfriend is okay, but they’re (usually) not furry enough. After a rough day, snuggle up with a pet for an instant slobbery smile, since pets can boost self-esteem and even ease the sting of social rejection Friends with benefits: on the consequences of pet ownership. McDonnell, A.R., Brown, C.M., Shoda, T.M. Department of Psychology, Miami University, Oxford, OH. Journal of Personaality and Social Psychology 2011;101(6):1239-52..
So you’ve decided you need some therapeutic work, huh? At Mantis, we offer customized massages. We don’t have a routine. We don’t all do the same thing. We are therapists. Massage therapist with different skills and trainings, and what makes Mantis the best therapeutic massage clinic is the fact that we LISTEN. You tell us what’s going on, and we cater to that. You need a massage that will fix those damn problems in your neck, low back, and hips? You haven’t been able to turn your head to the right for three days? Every time you run you get this searing pain in your foot, or your fingers go numb when you are typing on the computer? Maybe you’re just STRESSED. Whatever it is, we will tailor our work to your body and give you pro-tips to take home with you at the end of a session. We want to help you understand and treat your body right, that is our mission.
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.