May 24, 2011

On the Medical Uselessness of Massage

About a year ago I posted this essay on my personal blog. I reproduce it here on request, together with the semi-retraction I wrote a couple days later, with a further observation or two at the end.

Let's be honest. I am in no doubt as to the therapeutic value of massage, but most of it is more spiritual or psychological than medical. The medical benefits solemnly listed by massage therapists are real enough, but they're mostly trivial. Yes, an hour of massage relieves stress and lowers blood pressure -- but not more than a ten-minute nap. It improves the circulation of blood and lymph -- but not more than a stroll around the block. It triggers an endorphin release – but not more than eating a bar of chocolate. It relieves muscle tension -- but not more than a hot bath. All these effects are real and measurable; they're just not very important, medically speaking, and they are not – quite obviously to me – why people really get massage. People get massage because they ache for the touch, for the physical communication, for the sensation of being physically cared for, physically attended to, physically heard. We dress it up as a medical intervention because that makes it respectable. It's justifiable to spend money on it, if it's medical. But it's no more medical really than a momma cat licking her kittens' tummies. Perhaps that does aid the kitten's digestion, but you and I and every cat knows that's not really the point.

The point is that we must love and be loved; we must touch and be touched. It's fundamental to our well-being. My favorite massage myth is that it “releases toxins.” This has been studied, and there's not a shred of evidence for it, but the myth marches on regardless, because it feels right. It feels like you're getting rid of something poisonous when you get a good massage, when you give your body over to someone and they treat it with interest and love and respect. But the poison isn't metabolic waste: the poison is the anxiety of loneliness, the ache for acceptance, the doubt whether we really belong to the tribe. Those are the toxins massage flushes from the system.

(Okay. An exception, here, is trigger point, which has serious therapeutic value for relieving chronic myofascial pain – what's commonly perceived as joint pain. But the most common “dosages” of massage – one hour once a month, or one hour once a week – are all but useless for trigger point, which typically needs ten minutes three or four times a day to be effective. I do trigger point on myself all the time, and so should you: but save your money. See a good trigger point therapist once or twice, get them to teach you how to work the points causing your pain, and do it yourself till the points resolve. That would be my advice, for all but the gnarliest and most entrenched trigger point systems.)

The thing about the psychological benefit of massage is that it falls roughly under the rubric of placebo treatment, and from what we know about placebo, the more ritual and mystery surrounding it, and the more sense of its preciousness, the better it works. If I could talk a good line about releasing toxins or balancing energy, my massage would be more therapeutic. And if I charged more for it, it would be more effective. There's a serious case to be made for the therapeutic value of driveling, especially if you believe in the nonsense yourself. But I can't do it.

I can say this, in recompense: the love I feel for my clients is intense, and quite as real as any other kind of love. I'll stumble upon pockets of grief, I'll open up veins of lifelong loneliness, that will stagger me. Doing massage is no more soothing, ordinarily, than participating in a meditation retreat is relaxing. On the contrary, like a meditation retreat, it's most often, for me, a wild roller-coaster ride of emotions, waves of joy and sadness in quick succession, glimpses of rare colors and strange countries. The connection can be downright unnerving. You need either a thick skin or a certain amount of contemplative stability to ride it out. The end result may be – usually is – a profound sense of gratitude and well being: but it doesn't come cheap.

I suspect that if you studied people with a life history of getting regular massage, you'd find longevity benefits similar to – and as difficult to analyze as – those of marriage. But a study definitively establishing cause would be, under present funding conditions, prohibitively expensive. After all, people who get regular massage tend to be prosperous, tend to look after themselves, tend to be willing to expend resources on their own well-being, tend to be comfortable with touch and hence likely to be in healthy love relationships: you'd need to randomize your clientele, and track them over years, to avoid all that skew and get real results. A study like that is not going to happen while Big Pharma rules the medical roost.

The trouble is that if we keep making claims for short term medical effectiveness that we can't actually back up, sooner or later we're going to be discredited. Massage could go into another eclipse like that of the middle 20th Century, when it almost disappeared in America as a respectable profession. I'd hate to see that happen, because I do think we help people, profoundly and lastingly, and I do think we are the keepers of a traditional lore – of several traditional lores – that ought to be preserved. But I don't think we can compete with Big Pharma on its own ground of quick fixes and magical pain relief, and I don't think we should try.

And here's the semi-retraction:

Okay, Not Useless

I promise you, if I ever undertake seriously to argue that massage has no medical value, my paper will have footnotes and close argumentation and takedowns of several studies, and it will be longer than 500 words. I promise also that I will try to refrain from tweaking people with inflammatory and outrageous titles, although that will be a harder promise to keep. It's been part of my rhetorical strategy so long that it persists even when the ideology which formed it (essentially, that dull people are improved by being poked) has long since withered away. Habits die hard. I was given Strunk & White at a tender age, and encouraged to think that forcefulness was the prime virtue -- what all writing should aspire to all the time. I now have a middle-aged respect for accuracy and caveat, even when dull; but I still find myself fluttering the cape sometimes.

And anyway, I would never want to make that argument: it's untrue. When my essay was linked to for a group of people who work hard to do medical massage (and justify its use), they were understandably miffed. It was a nice lesson for me in how contexts can shift, on the internets. I can ordinarily assume that my audience here knows that I'm passionate about massage, that my much of my practice is what is called “relaxation massage,” rather than treatment-oriented massage (though I'm doing much more treatment nowadays.) So the “medical benefits of massage” that I was poking fun at are the ones that routinely show up on the web pages of practitioners like me -- not the pain relief, lymph drainage, and trigger point, and all the techniques that shade into physical therapy, but rather the stock list that you learn in Massage I – relieves stress, promotes circulation, lowers blood pressure -- all true, all verifiable, all temporary, and all trivial.

If massage were as effective as many of its practitioners claim, it would blow other therapies out of the water in comparative studies. In fact it comes out lackluster, most of the time. If some therapists have the extraordinary success rates they claim, that only makes the general picture worse: for every therapist two sigmas out on the right, there have to be a dozen or two whose work is completely worthless, to get the kind of distributions we see. Massage came out tops in treating low back pain, in a study a while back, but that was more because the other therapies were so ineffective, than because massage worked so well.

I started reading studies of massage back before I was in massage school, but I gave up pretty soon. What I saw then was mostly very small studies with inadequate controls documenting that massage could have a significant effect on this, that or the next thing. Which, if you're not a science person, might sound impressive. But “significant” doesn't mean “important,” in statistics: it just means “very unlikely to be a random result.” Aspirin significantly reduces low back pain, but we can be excused for not jumping up and down with delight about that fact, especially if we can't get out of bed. These studies were a start, and I'm not mocking the people who did them, who had next to no resources. They established that there's something to study, that the idea of treating various conditions with massage is not absurd. But they didn't take us much further than that.

I know. I have anecdotal evidence too. I have clients who swear that I fixed their necks, backs, hips, knees. I am confident that I've reduced a lot of pain. I even have people I think I really rehabilitated, got back on their feet again. Someone who couldn't go up and downstairs, who now runs up and down like a goat. Another who couldn't hold a pencil, whom I enabled to write again. Someone who thought it was only my work that allowed her still to stand upright, at the end of her pregnancy. That feels good, and I like believing in it, but I can hardly be classed as an unbiased observer. A scientific person has to ask: how many people were just going to get better anyway? Eighty percent of my appointments are with clients who think I'm terrific, but how much of that is because the people who didn't get any relief just didn't come back? How much of it is just because of the rapport and affection that any loving touch conveys? I like to think – be real, I do think – I'm a good therapist. I study and I think and I pay attention. If something doesn't seem to be working, I try something else. But I don't think the comparative studies are lying, and I don't think the majority of massage therapists are incompetent.

Having said that much – and possibly gotten myself in trouble again – I will also say: we don't know a damn thing. The study of massage is in its infancy. Chronic myofascial pain is very mysterious, and much of what we thought we knew about it is being daily disproven.

God, think what we could find out if we had the kind of money that gets spent researching drugs! Everything remains to be discovered. There may come a time when we can confidently tell someone with chronic back pain, “I'll have you on your feet again in a week, and after that you'll never need to come see me again.”

We are not there now, and claiming that we are only makes us look ridiculous. We want solutions that a workaday, non-brilliant, not particularly gifted therapist can execute and get reliable outcomes. The traditional lores are not going to get us there, not on their own, although they are full of hints. We need science. We need to understand how it really works. We need results that are verifiable and repeatable.

In the meantime, I'll do my best to help with the pain presented to me. But I don't have the confidence in the value of that part of my practice that I have in the supposedly vaguer, touchy-feely, cloth-mom-for-the-rhesus part of it. People need to be touched with love and understanding, and I know how to do it. The bottom is not going to drop out of that market if Methylene Blue turns out to fix discogenic back pain, or if someone builds a cool nerve-feedback acupuncture machine that fixes pseudosciatica every time. All that will do is take away one of the pretexts people have been depending on to get the touch they need. They'll find another.

So, a year later, I find this is still pretty much where I come down. I have more experience of helping people recover from auto accidents, now, and those benefits seem to me pretty clear: trauma of that sort doesn't just cause new injuries, it re-activates old, latent trigger points, and after a few days it's often old injuries are causing more pain and distress than the new ones. Massage can do a lot to put them right. It's a prime instance of medically useful massage, and the results are impressive enough to convince even me.

There are things I wouldn't say now. I've come to dislike the phrase "Big Pharma," with its hints of conspiracy and collusion: I wouldn't use it now. But I have become even more skeptical of many therapies, over the past year, than I was when I wrote this: I still think that many massage therapists routinely make claims they can't back up. In this we aren't, maybe, all that different from other health care providers. But we have other traditions and other ground to stand on: we don't have to present ourselves as an alternative to opiates, disc surgery, or chelation. We could say we're doing some else, something worth doing for its own sake.


  1. Amen. I am a bit bewildered by the yearning to medicalize massage. Isn't, "It just feels good" reason enough to get a massage. And the relaxing nap space you describe, in my 13 years of massage, is where I see most of the healing take place.

  2. Thanks, Ezekiel! If only, if only we could really get people to take naps. I was saying to a client the other day -- "it would do you a world of good to get off the computer a couple times during the work day and lie down for five minutes." I could see that this struck her as completely impossible, and maybe it was -- she's some kind of commercial real estate broker, a business in which "face" is terribly important: she knows better than I do what's possible in her workplace.

    Business owners spring for all kinds of ergonomic office equipment and instruction, which recent research has not given much encouragement for. I'd love to do a comparative study of ergonomics and napping! I know what I'd put my money on.

  3. Thanks for that. You hit on a few big ones. The way we are taught massage focusses on these medical details that are in reality trivial. There is definitely something that we haven't learned to measure yet that massage taps into.

    Credit must be given, however, to therapists like myself that focus on measurable physical changes using techniques that are not soothing, not trigger point related and still provide results