Shared Knowledge Shared Experience

By Douglas Nelson

Shared Knowledge

As President of the Massage Therapy Foundation (MTF), I am often asked to explain why I am so passionate about the value of massage therapy research. My answer to that question comes from my background as a practising massage therapist. For me, one of the greatest values of massage therapy research to the profession is the concept of shared knowledge. There are at least two reasons why I believe this is an important aspect of research in our field. First, this April marked the beginning of my 43rd year of practice as a massage therapist. Seeing more than 25-30 clients a week for that many years creates a tremendous database of clinical experiences. Yet, because I primarily see people with complex musculoskeletal conditions, each week I am faced with unique presentations I am not familiar with.

How can I effectively respond to these challenges? When simply drawing inferences from my own clinical experience is inadequate, the most helpful pursuit is to learn from the experience of others. That knowledge can be obtained in a narrative format, such as a published case report where therapists might chronicle their experiences with a particular client and condition. Case reports will often contain some background knowledge of the condition, perhaps containing other research insights and avenues I had failed to explore. Through the therapist’s description of the applied treatment approach I often get ideas for how I can direct my own approach to my client. It is important to state that I am not looking for a recipe or exact protocol as much as I am seeking insight into the condition and the treatment methodology.

In the end, I still have to make treatment choices but, the more informed I am about the possibilities, the more likely I am to create positive outcomes for my client.

The is the blending of art and science in the field of massage therapy. It is my strong belief that embracing the research does not mean abandoning the art. Any endeavour that deepens your understanding thereby deepens the art.

Second, there is a saying that a vision of one is a mirage. If I somehow discover a treatment approach that is consistently helpful for a specific condition, my clients may benefit from that knowledge but other therapists and their respective clients may not. The impact of that knowledge cannot be fully realised until it is shared with colleagues. If my results can be replicated by other therapists, it speaks to the valence of the approach. Moreover, potentially thousands of clients can be helped by this discovery, rather than only the people I am personally capable of serving.

Outside of the sphere of our own field, other health care providers also need to know these discoveries as well. A published case report may be accessed by health providers and the general public seeking options for treatment. Articles published in peer-reviewed journals such as The International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork ( can disseminate that information world-wide to anyone who seeks it. In addition, the articles in IJTMB are open access, meaning that the full article is available to download. Providers may now refer it to a massage therapist with greater confidence.

Research also shows the world that we, as a profession, are self-reflective. We question, we explore, we test, we share. Just as we have greater confidence in other people when they are reflective instead of reflexive, other health care providers have greater confidence in our field when we question the “why” behind every “what”. The value of questioning lies in the process itself, not often the ultimate answer.

Shared Experience

As I write this, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and my practice and clinic are closed with an unknown reopening date. In my role with the MTF and as a continuing education provider, I have been speaking with hundreds of therapists from around the US who are experiencing the same. In my conversations with other therapists, I often hear how emotionally difficult it is to be closed, to not be of service in the manner we have always done. We are a caring and giving profession and, for many of us, the clients we see are often caregivers themselves. We serve those who serve. In the current pandemic environment, many of those clients are still on the front lines but we, as a profession, are on the sidelines for the first time. This situation and the feelings it creates are new experiences for me, as they have been for many others as well.

To that end, I am heartened by a new research initiative to capture this moment in time. Researchers from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Greenville, Prisma Health, Clemson University, and Indiana University (IUPUI) are gathering survey data from health care providers who are currently not practising during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data collection will be done through surveys and tools such as video blog entries. The time to capture our insights and feelings about the experience is now, not retrospectively from some point in the future. To our knowledge, this is an incredibly unique project that will have a potentially significant impact.

If you have time, please watch the chat I recorded with three of the investigators of the COPE project.

Most disasters tend to be regional and time compressed. The COVID-19 pandemic is global and at this point the end is completely unclear. What are therapists feeling? For many of us, we knew that closing was the right thing to do. If that was true, why didn’t it feel right? Could there be elements of moral distress as a result of being asked not to work? (Moral distress is the emotional state that arises from a situation when a provider feels that the ethically correct action to take is different from what he or she is tasked to do.) How do we, as a profession, respond to these feelings? Is there anything to be learned for future situations – both to be more effective and to help people during the process? These and many other questions arise and now is the time to explore and capture the data.

I am amazed at how quickly this project came together and how fast it is evolving. Each of the investigators have shared how fluid the process is and how much it might change over the coming weeks. Insights gained from this project may indeed help others; but it is also validating to hear that my peers are struggling with similar issues to mine. We are not alone; we are in this together.

You Can Get Involved!

I invite you to share in this project. Please click here to participate in a brief survey.

Not familiar with the Massage Therapy Foundation? In a future article, I will share more about our 30-year history of research, education, and community service. It is a rich history of providing valuable resources to the field of massage therapy, now and for generations to come. Please visit to learn more.

About the Author

Douglas Nelson is US based and Board Certified in Massage Therapy and Therapeutic Bodywork, beginning his career in massage therapy in 1977. He is the founder of NMT MidWest, Inc., Precision Neuromuscular Therapy™ and has personally taught more than 13,000 hours of continuing education. Doug is also the current president of the Massage Therapy Foundation. Having published many articles in numerous journals and magazines, he is also the author of three books: Table Lessons: Insights in the Practice of Massage Therapy, Table Lessons 2.0: Insights in the Practice of Massage Therapy and The Mystery of Pain.

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