Robert Todd Carroll
A massage is the rubbing or kneading of parts of the body to aid circulation or to relax the muscles. Massage therapy is a massage which includes a metaphysical explanation usually couched in terms of "balancing" some sort of "energy."
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 pleasure of being touched by another person and with the physical movement of muscles and other body parts.
Most of us know from experience how the touch of another person can be soothing, comforting and spirit-enhancing: healing, if you will. Massage therapists claim to understand the metaphysical reasons for the uplifting and relaxing effect of massage. Their explanations vary. Here are a few culled from an article in The Davis Enterprise [January 10, 1993, p. C-1 and C-3]. The article features local "massage therapist" Karen Khamashta using Ortho-Bionomy, Reflexology, and Polarity.
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."
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."
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." Polarity therapy is a kind of acupuncture without the needles. In acupuncture the metaphysical energy that gets blocked is known as chi.
Another 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."
Massage therapy sounds as if it has as its goal something similar to therapeutic "touch"--restoring harmony and balance to one's life energy. But the massage therapist uses "palpation for assessment of ... energy blockages", while the therapeutic touch practitioner appears to be just waving her hands over your aura. Personally, I would prefer palpation.
Massage therapists who are certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork 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 claims that
They don't mention who did the research and where one might verify these claims. Nor do they mention that these effect are likely to be temporary or that similar results might be achieved by meditating, walking, or reading a good book.
The AMTA also claims that therapeutic massage "can help" with
Something that "can help" with so many disorders and dysfunction should be very popular. According to the AMTA Americans spend from $2 billion to $4 billion on massage therapy per year. However, "can help" is not a very strong claim, and those with serious medical problems such as cardiac problems, depression or sinusitis would do well to consult a physician.
Since massage therapy is essentially an unregulated profession, making claims that massage therapists are qualified to treat medical conditions such as allergies, infectious diseases, phlebitis, etc., seems like quackery. This has not stopped the profession from expanding to the point where now even dogs can get a healing massage.
See related entry on alternative health practices.
Barrett, Stephen and William T. Jarvis. eds. The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1993). $18.87
Robert Todd Carroll