Report from the International Massage Therapy Research Conference

This past week I was blessed to attend the International Massage Therapy Research Conference. This event is only held every three years and it was my first time attending. It was held at the Seaport in Boston, a beautiful hotel right on the harbor and right across the street from the World Trade Center, in a great part of town. We enjoyed excellent service from the staff there, so kudos to them.

I arrived on Wednesday in time to view the DVD showing of the International Fascia Research Conference from Vancouver. The presentations from that conference were fascinating, and that event will be the next thing on my wish list. Nothing is better at a movie than popcorn and Milk Duds, which were provided…some of the science presented was above my head, but hey–I went there to learn!

The Conference officially kicked off on Thursday morning with Massage Therapy Foundation President Ruth Werner making some opening remarks, followed by a beautiful blessing from three Native American ladies who were present. Dr. Jeanette Ezzo was the opening keynote speaker. Her topic was “Mechanisms and Beyond: What is Needed to Prove the Effectiveness of Massage?” I must confess I was taken aback at one of her early comments regarding acupuncture. She stated that although there was no scientific proof the meridians exist, that “the efficacy of it gets us off the hook.” I was rather surprised to hear that at a research conference where the focus was on scientific evidence. There was also a poster display, including one entitled “Is There a Place for Energy Work for Children Living With Autism?” It’s just my personal opinion that it was out of place there. That was my only complaint about the entire experience.

On Thursday I also attended a presentation on “Massage Therapy for Specific Conditions,” where four different researchers presented their studies on tension headaches, osteoarthritis in the knee, vascular function, and chronic pain in opiate-addicted patients.

Thursday afternoon I attended the newcomer’s luncheon, where Jerrilyn Cambron, Ruth Werner, and Allissa Haines all gave short talks to those in attendance. Thursday night I attended the welcome reception and met up with a lot of friends.

Friday morning I met with my representatives from Lippincott Williams and Wilkins and then listened to the keynote speech from Leslie Corn, “Somatic Emphathy: Restoring Community Health With Massage,” followed by a panel presentation on “Massage in the Community; Informing Public Health.” That afternoon. I attended a workshop in “Best Practices Guidelines: Building the Framework,” presented by Michael Hamm, Keith Eric Grant, and John Balletto–all previously known to me as Facebook friends–so I was glad to meet them all in person and participate in their class.

Saturday I attended Dr. Janet Kahn’s keynote speech, “Massage in 21st Century Healthcare: Let’s Seize the Moment.” Dr. Kahn’s presentation was probably the most informative and eye-opening moment for me, personally, about the state of health care in general in the US. Let’s just say it is not a pretty picture! As Dr. Kahn pointed out, there is a trend among our politicians to act as if the US has the best health care in the world, but the statistics really show the contrary.

That was followed with a panel presentation on “Next Steps in Massage Therapy Research” moderated by Bodhi Haraldsson, Research Department Director at the Massage Therapist’s Association of British Columbia. I’m telling you now, I could nearly cry when I see how much is done in Canada to advance massage therapy research compared to what is done here. We look disgraceful in comparison. Research literacy is required of every student in every school. $100 of each therapist’s registration fee is used to fund massage therapy research.

Saturday afternoon’s final event was a workshop, “Massage Therapy Research Agenda Planning,” where the approximately 250 attendees split into small groups to brainstorm recommendations for future massage therapy research.

During the whole event I got to visit with so many people, both longtime friends and people I  had only previously met through social media. I shared breakfast one morning with Keith Eric Grant, who was blogging about massage long before I started. I had lunch one day with Lisa Mertz from New York, whom I had previously met in person at the World Massage Festival. Saturday night I had dinner with Ben McDonald and Cliff Martin, owners of Massamio, that I had previously met at another conference.

All in all, it was just a wonderful event. My only regret is that I couldn’t attend every single presentation; some of them overlapped and there was just no way to be in two places at once. Thanks must be given to AMTA as the major sponsor of this event. Other sponsors included Books of Discovery, ABMP, the MA Chapter of AMTA, Anatomy Trains, and Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. The staff of the Massage Therapy Foundation and numerous volunteers kept things running smoothly. A round of applause to them all.

That being said, I feel compelled to go on a rant before I close out this blog. If you are an educator and/or a school owner, you owe it to your students to see to it that they are research literate. I believe there is a serious lack of any knowledge of research literacy in this profession. I am not asking schools to turn out researchers…I AM asking that the basics of research literacy are included in your curriculum, so that your students at least know the difference in what is valid research and what is website hype, one of the numerous myths of massage, or claptrap from a magazine. There is just no excuse for not doing it.

This event only takes place every three years, and the location of the next one has not yet been decided. I don’t care if it’s held on the moon; I will plan to be there.

11 Replies to “Report from the International Massage Therapy Research Conference”

  1. Laura, I’m so glad you had a good time at the conference; it was wonderful to see you there. I want to comment on Dr. Ezzo’s “efficacy gets us off the hook” statement– we need scientific, high-quality, rigorous research to demonstrate efficacy too: remember, this is a yes or no question: DOES it WORK? If the answer is yes, that’s a good start– that’s what she was saying. The mechanisms piece– the HOW it works– is also important, but much, much, much harder to pin down because the nature of the human interaction is so complex. This doesn’t mean we don’t need mechanistic studies, but efficacy (“does it work under controlled conditions?”) and effectiveness (“does it work under real-life conditions?”) studies are what we need to demonstrate to our health care partners that our work is valuable.

    Ultimately we may find that a lot of what we think we’re doing might be incorrect. That knowledge will help us to be better at our jobs, if it teaches us to be more effective. But in the meantime, let’s keep gathering that “YES” data about the effectiveness of massage therapy!

  2. Laura always does such a great job providing reports from the conferences she attends. Ruth’s comments are also important. I have attended all of the Foundation conferences and two of the Fascial Research Conferences. I personally am not structured to be a researcher and learned that the hard way during my research design classes and thesis project when I got my masters degree. But I am excellent at finding, reading and practical application as I teach, write textbooks and work with my own clients. This is what being research literate is all about. I also support whole heartedly those with the determination and skills to do quality research and believe all of use should do that as well.

  3. Hi Laura, sounds like it was a fun and informative event. Research literacy is a good thing. That said, I would tell any new (or even old hand) CMT that seo literacy brings cash ROI to a practice and thus the opportunity to do in vivo research yourself about the benefits of massage therapy.

  4. Nice summary! Thank you. I wish that I could have attended and I hope to be able to attend the next one. I have been interested in doing research studies myself. I have taken an online course provided by the IMTR organization. I have read other articles pertaining to research, I have read research studies, and I have started to collect data in my own practice. I still have yet to submit my own data as a research study. Your article has encouraged me to move forward in reaching this goal. Thank you again for your summary and thank you to the previous responders. Their comments were additionally enlightening as well as their presence in this field.

  5. Hi Laura .
    Your writing skills ,really is amazing .I mean it .thanks for blog. I really regret couldn’t make it. It would be good to have first hand experience. Topic “Mechanisms and Beyond: What is Needed to Prove the Effectiveness of Massage?”
    It Giving the impression, like only recently we starting discovering mechanism of Western methods of massage therapy. The mechanism is known, and was established long ago. Prof.Sherback proposed concept of segment reflex massage, and two German physicians Dr. Glasser and Dr. Delixo proposed maps of reflex zones pathological formation. In regards of fascia , connective tissue massage was initially proposed in 1938 by Dr. Ducley, Austrian physical therapist. Since then ,Even today in Europe existing society of connective tissue massage. Tones of researchers was done, and around 60 case presentations of massage therapy protocols was developed. It looks like at this conference it was ignored. Maybe my impression is wrong, I wasn’t there. Just reading your report. Also you said:” I could nearly cry when I see how much is done in Canada to advance massage therapy research compared to what is done here” Research literacy is required of every student in every school. $100 of each therapist’s registration fee is used to fund massage therapy research.”
    I would agree with you that maybe reading research literacy in school could be beneficial. Are there research literature related to science of massage? Is it should be textbooks? Did you decide what research literacy your student will be reading from ?How much it can benefit hands-on massage performances/results? Are Canadian, massage therapists providing safer procedures?, Delivering better results? Making bigger income than American massage therapists? This is the major questions we must find answer, before following this model, and feeling like Canadian massage therapy industry is much more advance than we are.
    And final important questions:” “Massage Therapy Research Agenda Planning,” where the approximately 250 attendees split into small groups to brainstorm recommendations for future massage therapy research.”
    Will all this 250 attendants, will write research protocols and will conduct research? Dear Laura. I understand excitement, and even share some of it. But we must understand, that the researchers and clinicians are different experts, representing different fields. Researches developing protocols, conducting research, publishing research paper, including presenting step-by-step hands on massage protocols, and clinicians trained how to perform this protocols and then applying it on clients. I hope you will understand that I do not trying to spoil excitement of the moment. I just care. Have decided to post because ,I know you are very influential person, and can inspire many of us. I just would like to ask you ,first to review again, general picture.
    Best wishes.
    PS. Physical therapy fields went to wrong direction. Got DPT title, making much less money. Is PT treatment became safer in comparisons to when they use to be required first vocational school, then BA, then MA? Do they reaching Better outcome? DPT program required and overwhelmed them reading research literacy, submitting papers, spending time in anatomical theater. And of course program pretty expensive . Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against education, opposite of it . I just happen to believe that all educational discipline, have to contribute to capabilities of massage therapist to deliver results.

  6. Laura, thanks for your report. The next best thing to being there is getting to hear about it from those who were and you do a great job of communicating that.

    Don’t worry about the stuff that’s over your head. I have that happen all the time, too, because I get to hang out with people who know a lot more than I do! But I’m pleased that many things that were over my head a couple of years ago are now familiar to me. Maybe I got taller? 😉

    Regarding the “the efficacy of it gets us off the hook” statement, I strongly disagree. First of all – and I’m saying this as someone who has had a fair amount of acupuncture from both American and Chinese practitioners and was close friends with a doctor who did research on acupuncture for 30 years – the preponderance of evidence seems to suggest that acupuncture is no more effective than a placebo. But setting that aside, the reasoning is still faulty.

    Positive outcome for a modality does not mean that the explanation for the modality is correct. The explanation *also* has to have evidence to support it. Outcome does not get us off the hook for having a plausible explanation. If our explanations are implausible, they should be dropped.

    I was having a conversation with an MT recently about trigger points and hypotheses that compete with the generally accepted hypothesis put forth by Travell & Simons. We were discussing the damaged end plate hypothesis and I asked him, “But what causes them in the first place?” and he answered, “Aliens.” Well, we both know it’s a joke and that was the end of that conversation.

    But, I think it illustrates the point. His answer was funny because it was so obviously implausible. Because the “meridian” explanation has been so popular, in spite of it contradicting what we know about how the body works and there being no evidence to support it, “meridians” don’t seem as ridiculous an answer as “aliens.” But, in fact, it’s just as implausible and I cannot accept the idea that a positive outcome (which I dispute but, as I said, I’ll set aside for the moment) absolves us of responsibility for our explanations. If our explanations are implausible or are contradicted by evidence, then they should be dropped. Better to say, “I don’t know” than say,”It was caused by aliens.” Or meridians.

    Some explanations may appear plausible at the time and, as we have more evidence, need to change. That’s okay. But in science one does not hold onto an implausible, unsupported explanation just because a modality appears to have a positive outcome. In science, one makes a distinction between the facts and the interpretation of the facts. If the interpretation is contradicted by the facts, it has to be dropped. One would think that this would be understood at a research conference.

    I completely agree that all schools should be teaching research literacy so that MTs will be able to stay informed, be able to understand and evaluate research, and be able to integrate it into their practice.

    Thank you so much. Great report!

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