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massage therapy

A massage is the manipulation, by hand or with an instrument, of soft body tissue. Massage therapy may be done to aid circulation, to stimulate nerves, to relax the muscles, or even to move the joints. As Stephen Barrett, M.D. says:

Ordinary massage and the legitimate practice of massage therapy should not be categorized as quackery. Massage can help people relax, relieve aching muscles, and temporarily lift a person's mood. However, many therapists make claims that go far beyond what massage can accomplish. And even worse, massage therapy schools, publications, and professional groups are an integral part of the deception.

Massage therapy is often a massage plus a metaphysical explanation about some sort of energy or "structure" being balanced, unblocked, transferred, harmonized, tuned up, or aligned.

A massage is usually relaxing and usually feels good. Most of us, however, could not explain the physical and physiological mechanisms causing the relaxation and pleasure. Most of us probably suspect it has something to do with the enjoyment of being touched by another person, and with the physical movement of muscles and other body parts.

Some massage therapists claim to understand the metaphysical reasons for the uplifting and relaxing effect of massage. Their explanations vary. Karen Khamashta uses Ortho-Bionomy, Polarity therapy, and reflexology.

Ortho-Bionomy works by contacting the body's "trigger points." According to this theory, when a trigger point is contacted, you "immediately relieve pain and restore the body's natural balance and rhythm" (The Davis Enterprise, January 10, 1993, pp. C-1 and C-3). The Ortho-bionomy website doesn't refer to trigger points, however. "Ortho-bionomy is a gentle, non-invasive system of healing that reminds the body of its natural ability to restore balance." It was invented by British-trained osteopath Arthur Lincoln Pauls, who believes he discovered how to stimulate the body’s reflexes for self-correction. Ortho-bionomy uses "gentle movements, comfortable positioning, brief compression and subtle contact." The goal is to relieve pain and tension. The process seems to be based on the belief that the body used to know how to heal itself but somehow it forgot and needs to be reminded of its power. Ortho-bionomy, it is believed, helps the body rediscover its abilities to heal and find balance.

Reflexology works by allegedly unblocking the 7,200 nerve endings in each foot so that they can respond to all of the glands, organs and other parts of the body and improve the blood supply as well. This supposedly helps the body reach a "balanced state." This must require some very sensitive fingertips, indeed. (A Zen koan: How many fingertips does it take to cover one foot?)

Polarity therapy is based on "balancing the life energy that moves through every part of the body ... and ... moves in currents, or channels within and around the body." Polarity therapy "attempts to eliminate blockages in these channels which can cause imbalance and illness." The theory is that "if the body's currents are balanced, the person relaxes and is able to heal more efficiently" (ibid.).

Massage therapist Christy Freidrich says, "A lot of what I do is to try to help people with their structural balance. Over a period of time, people end up learning more about structure and how it works" (ibid.).

These massage therapists sound as if they have as their goal something similar to therapeutic "touch"--restoring harmony and balance to one's life energy. The massage therapist uses "palpation for assessment of ... energy blockages," while the therapeutic touch practitioner allegedly manipulates the energy in your aura

Massage therapists who are certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) must take 500 hours of education classes and pass an examination. They must know some basic anatomy and physiology, as well as some first-aid. Despite the emphasis on balancing energy, none of the practice questions provided by the NCBTMB involve metaphysics.

The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) claims that

Research shows [massage] reduces the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, increases blood circulation and lymph flow, relaxes muscles, improves range of motion, and increases endorphins, the body's natural painkillers. Therapeutic massage enhances medical treatment and helps people feel less anxious and stressed, relaxed yet more alert.

They don't mention who did the research and where one might verify these claims, but perhaps the answer can be found in their Journal. AMTA doesn't mention that these effects are likely to be temporary or that similar results might be achieved by meditating, walking, exercising, having sex, or reading a good book, not necessarily in that order.

AMTA also claims that therapeutic massage "can help" with

  • allergies
  • anxiety
  • arthritis (both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis)
  • asthma and bronchitis
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • chronic and temporary pain
  • circulatory problems
  • depression
  • digestive disorders, including spastic colon,   constipation, and diarrhea
  • headache, especially when due to muscle tension
  • insomnia
  • myofascial pain (a condition of the tissue connecting the muscles)
  • reduced range of motion
  • sinusitis
  • sports injuries, including pulled or strained muscles and sprained ligaments
  • stress
  • temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ)
  • toxin removal

Something that "can help" with so many disorders and dysfunctions should be very popular. According to the AMTA, Americans spend from $2 billion to $4 billion per year on massage therapy. However, "can help with" is an empty claim, and those with serious medical problems such as cardiac problems, depression, or sinusitis would do well to consult a physician. As Dr. Barrett notes: "There is no evidence-based reason to believe that massage can influence the course of any disease." Making claims that massage therapists are qualified to treat medical conditions such as allergies, infectious diseases, phlebitis, and the like, seems like quackery. This has not stopped the profession from expanding to the point where even dogs and horses can get a healing massage. One of the more popular animal therapies is "Tellington Touch," the creation of animal quacker Linda Tellington-Jones, who offers holistic treatment for pets.

So, when looking for a good massage therapist I'd suggest you avoid the ones that identify themselves with some sort of metaphysical quackery or New Age energy manipulation. Find one who has a pleasant and relaxing manner and who can make you relax. A good massage can reduce stress and anxiety, which is good for your health.

See also aromatherapy, craniosacral therapy, ear candling, reiki and Rolfing.

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further reading


Barrett, Stephen and William T. Jarvis. eds. The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1993).


Massage Therapy: Riddled with Quackery by Stephen Barrett, M.D.

A Massage School Experience

Last updated 05-Nov-2015

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