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.
The Thai Ministry of Public Health's Department for Development of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine regulates Thai traditional massage venues and practitioners. As of 2016 the department says 913 traditional clinics have registered nationwide in Thailand. As of 2018, of the 8,000 to 10,000 spa and massage shops in Thailand, only 4,228 are certified by the Health Ministry's Department of Health Service Support (HSS).
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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 patients49 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.
Thinking about something other than your stress or your pain can help you feel better. Guided imagery takes us to a happy place, but you don’t need to take a 30-minute journey to get there. When you feel stressed, stop what you are doing and picture yourself doing something relaxing, like taking a bath, swimming in the ocean or resting on a hammock. Imagine the scene as vividly as you can. Go there anytime you need to “escape.”
Trigger points may respond to massage, and that is certainly my impression from three decades of rubbing my own trigger points and trying to help other people with theirs. It’s also what legions of massage therapists believe. But don’t ask science for confirmation — it’s playing hard-to-get here. I get dorky in detail about the science of trigger point massage in the trigger points tutorial, but here’s the bottom line …
Thai Massage is a popular massage therapy that is used for management of conditions such as musculoskeletal pain and fatigue. Thai Massage involves a number of stretching movements that improve body flexibility, joint movement and also improve blood circulation throughout the body. In one study scientists found that Thai Massage showed comparable efficacy as the painkiller ibuprofen in reduction of joint pain caused by osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee.
For many years the best review of the science that was available, by Furlan et al., had a cautiously optimistic conclusion, declaring that “massage is beneficial.”37 But then, in 2015, Furlan et al. added another dozen studies to the pool of data, and actually changed their tune: now they have “very little confidence that massage is an effective treatment for LBP.”38 And nor should they. Although there are scraps of good news, the evidence damns massage with faint praise — just like all other “promising” back pain treatments.
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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?”
An Indian physician named Shivago Kumar Bhucca, a contemporary of the Buddha, is often credited with developing Thai massage. The impetus was to give monks and nuns the flexibility to sit for long hours in meditation. Whatever its genesis, massage was considered such a crucial aspect of medical treatment in Thailand that until the early 20th century, the Thai Department of Health included an official massage division. Thai massage is based on releasing blockages along ten lines of energy called sen, which are similar to the meridians of traditional Chinese medicine. The technique incorporates stroking and kneading of muscles, manipulation of joints, and pressure applied to specific points in order to balance the body’s four elements—earth, water, fire, and air. But there’s also rocking, breathing, and lots of stretching—Thai massage is often referred to as “lazy yoga.”
Pre-event massage is given shortly before an athlete competes. It consists mainly of brisk effleurage to stimulate and warm the muscles and petrissage to help muscles move fluidly and to reduce muscle tension. Effleurage is generally a relaxing stroke , but when done briskly it is stimulating. As the massage progresses, the pressure increases as the massage therapist uses percussive strokes and cupping to stimulate the muscles to contract and flex. The part of the body being massaged varies from sport to sport, although leg and back muscles are common targets for this type of massage.
Thank you so much for your article The Pressure Question in Massage Therapy. I just read it all. I went for a sports massage two weeks ago as I was recommended to have one as it was suggested it might help with tight calves, a side effect of some other injuries I have. I’ve been for sports massages many, many times before over the years. This one was one of the most painful experiences of my life — when I got home I was almost sick and felt in shock. My right achilles tendon was raging and it’s been bad ever since. It hurt so much when it was done (like someone was sticking knives in) and I kept asking if it was meant to hurt. I wish I’d just stopped the session or objected but I didn’t. It used to be a bad injury that affected me walking for about 6 months so I’m just devastated about this. I can hardly bear to put shoes on and its all this time on. I know there are good practitioners out there but experiences like this just make me want to stay away. I wish I’d gone to a “gentle” one.
A licensed, traditional massage practitioner is required to complete at least 800 hours training. Massage therapists must acquire a professional license and must register at the Public Health Ministry's Department of Health Service Support (HSS). To qualify for a license, therapists must be trained in courses created by the HSS. The standard courses are provided free. Alternatively, students can go to one of the 181 schools nationwide approved to train therapists using standard HSS courses.
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.