Building the Foundation for Massage
By Douglas Nelson
Standing at the base of a majestic tree, I find it awe-inspiring to gaze at the magnitude of the beautiful canopy above. What is not visible is the depth and breadth of the root system underfoot that makes the impressive canopy possible. Understandably, it is the visible canopy that gets our attention; but the invisible root system is also astonishing. In many ways, this is a metaphor for work of the Massage Therapy Foundation (MTF), which has been quietly providing a solid root system for the field of massage therapy for thirty years. This foundation has helped to open doors and advance the profession in a multitude of ways, both large and small.
A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure to be panellist at the Alliance to Advance Comprehensive Integrative Pain Management. This virtual conference was comprised of an august list of presenters from high-level health providers, payers, and researchers. It is an accomplishment for the field of massage therapy that we were asked to participate in such an important gathering. How is it that we were invited to have a seat at the table?
The presenters clarified that perhaps the most important factor in opening that door was the growth in both the number and quality of research studies in the field of massage therapy. With that solid and growing foundation of research, the conversation has shifted to how massage can best be implemented, rather than if massage should be implemented. With other health care providers, we can now explore how massage therapy might contribute to an improvement in quality of care, patient experience, self-efficacy, therapeutic outcomes, and ultimately cost effectiveness. These rich discussions are big branches with many leaves, made possible by years of foundational research.
For thirty years, the Massage Therapy Foundation has been serving the field of massage therapy by funding massage therapy research, educational initiatives, and community service grants. Each of these pillars are an important aspect of our mission.
To date, MTF has funded over $US1.4 million in massage therapy research. Studies funded by MTF have looked at many aspects of massage, from outcome studies to exploring basic science concepts behind the work. In an effort to ensure access to this growing body of research literature, MTF founded and publishes a free, open-access scientific journal, the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. IJTMB is peer reviewed and indexed by PubMed, Google Scholar, and other major research indices. It publishes research that reflects actual massage therapy practice, where massage therapists are either involved in study design and/or performing the massage. IJTMB is an important resource for the profession and a portal for research in the field.
Educational initiatives are also a vital part of MTF’s mission. It is important to fund research in the field, but it is equally significant that massage therapists know how to read, explore, and understand research literature. MTF provides many resources and opportunities for therapists to increase their research literacy skills. Our informative and entertaining research webinars, podcasts, infographics, and posters inspire and educate students and therapists. Our yearly Student Case Report Contest provides a viable venue for massage therapy students to build their research and writing skills while learning about clinical research applications.
The third pillar, Community Service Grants, fulfills the philanthropic mission of the MTF by bringing the power and promise of massage therapy to populations who would never normally have access to it. We have brought the benefits of massage to populations such as torture survivors, medically fragile children, those experiencing homelessness at the end of life, caregivers under stress, and so many others over the years. These substantial projects highlight the reality that we – massage therapists – are a caring and giving profession and give back to the communities we serve in meaningful and powerful ways.
MTF continues to branch out and grow to meet the needs of the profession. One of our newest and most exciting initiatives is the MTF Ergonomics Project. This project will involve research elements, therapist education, and service to the MT community. The project aims to collect and interpret biomechanical data to help therapists find the safest and most efficient ways to use their bodies while practicing.
In this first phase of this project, professional ergonomists collected biomechanical data from therapists in motion as well as data about the effects of the size of the treatment room and relative table height. To date, this has been done in two locations, using experienced therapists treating a client for thirty minutes. The therapists were not provided guidelines or restrictions and were free to perform their session per their preference, in terms of techniques, sequencing, and time spent per body region. As these therapists treated the back, neck, and the leg, the ergonomics experts marked hundreds of data points through direct observation and video recording for later analysis.
In the second phase, additional data will be collected to measure pressure and force vectors, using technology that did not exist ten years ago. We hope to expand the number of sites and therapists from which we collect data and amass an extensive database which could then be analysed to help create best practice recommendations. This could benefit the profession in profound ways, potentially leading to guidelines that help therapists prevent injury and extend their careers.
The mission of the Massage Therapy Foundation is to advance the knowledge and practice of massage therapy by supporting scientific research, education, and community service. By funding research initiatives and educational projects, we help therapists make a positive difference in the lives of the clients they treat. In addition, other health care providers and the general public are made aware of the deep underpinnings of the practice of massage. From this ever-deepening root system, the canopy of massage therapy knowledge can grow to new heights, bringing peace, stress reduction, and pain relief to a world that has never needed it more.
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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.
Cover image ©Sharon Livingstone 2020