Notes for a Presentation at the Skeptical Society of St. Louis Skepticamp: 8/18/12

Posted on: Fri, 08/17/2012 - 4:58pm By: Alice

This page was written as a reference for those who attended the Skeptical Society of St. Louis Skepticamp, Saturday, August 18, 2012. It includes websites mentioned during a presentation on the field of massage therapy from the point of view of a science-based massage therapist. The title of the presentation was "Woo, Sloppy Thinking, and Language."

Why is there so much "woo" in the field of massage therapy? I think there are many reasons. Among them are its root in folk medicine, a lack of science education and critical thinking skills in the profession, and the strong emotional and psychological experiences that sometimes accompany a massage experience. Todd Hargrove, a science-based Rolfer in the Seattle area, writes a wonderful blog and has one article in particular that I think makes an astute observation: unconscious learning can lead to magical thinking. His article, Why Massage Is Like Chicken Sexing, explores this idea. As he said, with a title like that, you know that quality content is sure to follow! Some companion articles on "deepities" are special favorites of mine, too.

[By the way, I have no idea whether the story about how chicken sexers are trained is accurate. However, I do know of studies that explore unconcious learning and that is the point I'd like to make.]

I have shared some of my own thoughts on the nature of "energy work", contrasting the reality of personal experience with the reality of objective experience. I also acknowledge that on can use massage as ritual. I recognize that personal experience may have value and meaning for both the client and the therapist, but I also believe that, rather than coming from an outside force, such as a human energy field, the experience comes from our brain and that answers about the experience are already found in neuroscience.

There is a great divide in the field of massage therapy between those who aspire to be science-based and those who believe in human energy fields. Ravensara Travillian wrote an eloquent series of articles about this at the science and education-focused website POEM, the Project for Open Education in Massage.

The field of massage therapy has suffered from a lack of research, presenting a difficult problem to therapists who wish to practice in a manner compatible with science. However, there is a small but growing body of research and science-based therapists can also draw from knowledge gained in other fields, such as biology, anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, or psychology, that explore the workings of the human body and mind.

Two of my favorite general resources are the websites Science Based Medicine and PainScience.com. SBM explores issues and controversies in the relationship between science and medicine. SaveYourself.ca is the project of Paul Ingraham, a retired Canadian massage therapist turned science writer, who writes about pain research, self-help, and science as it relates to manual therapy. His site is a treasure trove of useful information, served up with "sass and salamanders."

I have also complied a list of some resources for science-based massage therapists. Some of them may be of interest to non-professionals.

I believe the trend towards bringing the field of massage therapy into alignment with science is growing and will be the future of our profession. I am happy to be a small part of it.

It's a privilege to be included among the speakers at the St. Louis Skeptical Society's first Skepticamp. Thanks for the invitation and congratulations on a successful event!

Some additional links:
The Lactic Acid Myth
The Cortisol Study
"You're Really Tight!"
Reiki "research"
Laura Allen's hilarious "toxin" video