Why Myths Persist in the Massage Profession

With new research comes new truths. Here's how to let go of old beliefs and gain a client's trust. 

August 1, 2021

Every profession, especially those in the integrative health care arena, experiences growth that may require practitioners to reconsider what they know—and massage therapy is no different.

In specific contexts, myths can be powerful reminders of timeless and universal themes that connect us to the human experience. We learn about ourselves and our place in human history, and we also often find inspiration.

In professional settings, however, the idea of myths takes on a decidedly less positive connotation. Especially within health care settings, people depend on providers to help them honestly navigate the benefits of any integrative health care option they’re considering—including massage therapy.

How many times have you had to realign a client’s expectations of massage therapy, whether it’s because they don’t fully understand the array of benefits they might achieve or because their hopes are too high? 

How many times have you had to readjust your own understanding of massage therapy and the work you do with clients because of the advancements the profession has made in research?

The need for flexibility and the ability to adapt is evident across our lives, and that includes our careers.

Growth Potential: When Professions Evolve

Every profession experiences growth, and sometimes that growth means what was once believed to be true is later understood as untrue. Or, alternatively, a claim is strengthened by research and advancements in the profession. Think back to some early medical claims, for example, when doctors had little training and research to support the benefits of the various treatments they were prescribing.

Most everybody understands the negative connotation of a “snake oil salesman,” but historically, snake oil was believed to reduce inflammation and peddled by both unscrupulous salespeople and doctors alike.

The massage therapy profession continues to grow and evolve, too. It wasn’t that long ago when massage was contraindicated for clients with cancer, as the common belief was that touch would cause the cancer to spread. Today, we know massage therapy has myriad benefits for clients managing cancer and can be safely practiced as long as a few precautions are observed, like not massaging directly over a tumor site, for example.

Sometimes growth outpaces practitioners’ ability to adjust. But no matter the profession or how mature the research, a strong foundation that is committed to public safety and ethical practice requires its practitioners stay current so they can provide up-to-date information to their clients and manage expectations.

Letting go of or rethinking what we believe about what we do isn’t always easy—even when it’s necessary.

Why Some Myths Persist

You’re invested in the outcome. Massage therapists want to keep their clients safe and help them experience the benefits of massage. So whether it’s research suggesting that massage is safe for cancer patients or that massage doesn’t help flush toxins from a person’s body, rethinking how you talk to clients about massage can feel challenging.

Research seems to muddy the waters instead of providing clarity. Within and outside massage therapy, research changes what we know, and assimilating that new understanding into our prior knowledge can be difficult. When research once suggested one outcome and then later suggests another, being clear on what is correct and current can feel like a big task.

It’s helpful to remember that complex topics of study require a body of research where one study builds on another and systematically examines an issue or question. Especially as a profession begins to build a foundation, seeing research that clearly calls for further study is not unusual, and neither is having different researchers investigating the same question with different methods and getting conflicting results. This is why replicating results is imperative.

Research focusing on integrative health care outcomes can also be complicated by what science is continually learning about genetics and how individuals respond differently to the same treatment options.

Positive results, small study. When you find research that backs up what you believe about anything, being neutral—or even critical—of a study is hard, especially when results confirm what you’ve seen your own clients experience. But when the evidence is from one study or the study sample is small, results can’t be generalized in any real way.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing positive research outcomes with your clients, but massage therapists need to also make sure they’re letting their clients know the whole story. You might tell them research suggests they might experience X benefit or that massage therapy is good for X but that the study was small and more research is needed.  

Separating Myth From Fact: What You Can Do

Be honest and admit what you don’t know. Even with positive results, to make broad, generalized claims about the benefits of massage therapy requires a body of research that all points in the same general direction. When that body of research doesn’t exist, it’s OK—necessary, even—to let your clients know that you don’t know.

Sometimes, when research exists that indicates massage provides particular benefits, the mechanism behind how massage works toward an outcome is less clear, and you need to be honest with clients about that. You might tell your client, for example, “We have studies on how massage therapy benefits X, but the results aren’t conclusive yet.” Remember: Being honest with your clients will build loyalty and telling them when you aren’t sure of something doesn’t take away from the benefits they’re experiencing.

Don’t overstate results. Clients don’t come to you expecting miracles, and in order to practice ethically, you must be clear about what massage does and doesn’t offer someone. Again, not having definitive research behind a particular outcome doesn’t preclude your clients from experiencing positive results. But you need to talk about what you know about massage therapy accurately.

Think critically and ask questions. Not every published study is going to be reputable, and it’s a good idea to have the necessary tools to think critically about any research you’re reading or sharing with clients. Following are a few key things to consider:

Especially in academia, there is real pressure to publish in order to be hired and achieve and maintain tenure. Academic journals vary in quality, and some will have high standards for publishing and others will not, so being aware of and looking for journals that are reputable is important. Pub Med, Medline, JSTOR and CINAHL are all good places to start.

When you’re not familiar with a publication, take some time to visit its website and look around. Is the website up to date? Do you see a lot of spelling and grammatical errors? Does the website have a lot of dead links? These are the types of things that should be red flags to you.

Studies indexed on Pub Med and other databases will list if any authors of the study have a conflict of interest that needs to be acknowledged, so look for that information when reviewing studies. Massage therapists should also look at how the research was funded, which again will provide clues as to if the authors and the study might have been influenced in any way that would call into question the results.