Research and Massage

By Dr Sarah Fogarty

In early 2019, a research paper I authored was published. The article was about the side effects and mother or child-related physical harm from massage during pregnancy and the postpartum period, and it as an observational study.

One of the strengths of the paper was that the participants were ‘real life’ participants and thus the findings of the study are relevant to both massage therapists and the general public, especially those considering seeking pregnancy massage.

While this all sounds very nice, one of the issues with all research is how relevant is the research and how much do the findings of the research impact practice and consumers. A criticism of research into complementary medicine therapies is that the research doesn’t reflect the real life practice of the modality and or that the research intervention does not reflect the ethos or principals that underpin the foundation of the treatment. While research on pregnancy massage is limited and there is a need for further research, there is a need for research that is meaningful for practitioners and consumers.

It is important to remember that research is an investigation into a specific topic and one of the constraints of research is the requirement for a narrow scope of investigation. This means that research generally doesn’t investigate ALL aspects of a therapy or a treatment but hones in on one or two. The reason for this is normally to do with study numbers, study costs and being able to complete the research in a concise timeframe. The more variables that are investigated in research e.g. different types of massage, the clinician or different conditions, the larger the sample size needs to be. The larger the sample size, the greater the cost to run the research project and the longer the project needs to run.

There are many types of research that can be used to explore what massage therapy does and what it is.

Qualitative Research

Looks at the experiences of individuals and then seeks to report on similarities and differences between people’s experiences. This type of research suits research questions that look to investigate how people feel, what is important to them, what they experienced, what motivated them to seek treatment, how it helped (or not) them and how they understand the treatment. The research question in this type of research is often a broad question with no preconceived idea of the answers. An example of a qualitative research question is ‘What are the important aspects of massage and personality traits of massage therapists treating at end of life?’

Quantitative Research

Looks at aspects that can be quantified and then reports on if things worked, didn’t work, are better than another intervention or the same as another intervention. Quantitative research uses statistics to see if the change found (or no change found) is significant (not due to chance). This type of research generally looks at efficacy, effectiveness or equivalence. An example of a quantitative research question is ‘Is massage helpful in the treatment of wry neck in individuals aged 30-55?’


Surveys can include aspects of both qualitative and quantitative data and surveys often report on characteristics of a treatment or group of people. An example of a survey research question is “The characteristics and experience of massage therapy users in Victoria”.

Which Type of Study is Best?

While quantitative research is often seen as the ‘gold standard’ in research both qualitative and survey research have an important place in massage research, especially if the aim of the research is to be relevant to practitioners, consumers and thus, impact practice.

While there is a growing body of evidence on massage, there is not a lot of research available and I feel that it is important that, as therapists, we drive some of the research questions we would like answered.

I think it is important that research into massage looks at treatments, techniques and other aspects of treatment that matter to the therapists.

Hands up who has an idea for what they would like researched and what you feel would be helpful in practice and the information you disseminate to your clients.

Or pick one/some of the topics below.

  • The effectiveness of massage on reducing anxiety in clinical practice
  • The effectiveness of massage on reducing stress in clinical practice
  • Is massage in the first trimester safe?
  • What are the important traits of the massage therapist in providing treatment satisfaction?
  • The effectiveness of massage on reducing chronic low back pain in clinical practice?
  • The effectiveness of massage on reducing acute low back pain in clinical practice?
  • A survey into the decision making of massage treatment plans.
  • A survey into the opinions of massage therapists on determining guidelines for use of specific massage types e.g. pregnancy massage, remedial massage, Swedish massage, lymphatic drainage, fertility massage, relaxation massage etc.

About the Author

Dr Sarah Fogarty is an experienced massage therapist and researcher, and creator of Healing Hands, which supports those who have experienced stillbirth, miscarriage or neonatal loss. Her interests include mental health, practising ethically and safely, and improving the evidence around massage. Sarah has worked in clinic for over 18 years.

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