When will massage therapy believe in itself?

This morning, while having coffee and surfing facebook, I came across a post announcing the 2016 Oncology Massage Healing Summit hosted by Northwestern Health Sciences University.  I am always looking for news to post to my own facebook group focused on massage research, meditation research, and related topics, so I checked the link out.  Just based on a quick scan, I’d say it has the potential to be a good event.  Oncology massage is a really important topic, and a perusal of the presenters reveals some people with really terrific reputations; for example, both Tracy Walton and Lauren Cates have been leaders in oncology massage and oncology massage training for years now.  Anyone who has worked with them will tell you that they are incredible.

But then I took notice of the two keynote speakers – or more specifically, their areas of expertise – and I had an all-too-familiar sinking feeling.  One of the keynote speakers is an aromatherapist, and the other is listed as being a “Reiki Master.”

I have seen this over and over again.  Massage therapy has a chance to lead with a reality-based perspective, to highlight the many members of the profession who have been innovators, to show that massage therapy has well-documented effectiveness that is supported by scientific research, and to make the case that other forms of legitimate healthcare should be comfortable in welcoming it as a valuable partner.  Instead, it elects to ally itself with pseudoscience.

To be clear, I do not know either of the keynote presenters.  They may be excellent speakers, and I hope they do a fine job speaking about oncology massage and relevant associated material.  But since their expertise in aromatherapy and in “reiki” are mentioned prominently, it is only fair to point out that this is not how massage therapy, as a profession, should be positioning itself.  Aromatherapy has little to no evidence supporting its effectiveness, and reiki is fantasy-based nonsense.  Meanwhile, massage therapy is based in reality, has a growing body of positive research, is both safe and pleasant, and has sizable effects.  Why is the profession always touting its connections to alternative medicine, instead of leading with its own well-documented strengths?

This happens all the time, and all the various massage therapy organizations seem to be guilty of it at times.  When the American Federation for Massage Therapy Education had their recent 2105 Educational Congress, they did not choose an outstanding massage educator – and there are many – to be their keynote.  Nor did they choose a leader from the fields of medicine, or psychology, or physical therapy, or health policy, or any other person who could have spoken in a very relevant way about massage therapy education.  Instead, they gave their most valuable opportunity to Dr. James Oschman, who spoke about the nonsensical topic of “energy medicine.”  (The presentation itself is here; a clearly written scientific critique of his most prominent book is here.)

Meanwhile, on social media, members of the profession are engaged in long-running and recurrent dialogues about how massage therapy education and training is regulated.  And it is baffling.  In the United States the regulations are wildly different from one state to the next.  There is one organization that oversees the accreditation of schools, but a different one that oversees continuing education, and neither of them is under the control of the national organization that created them!  Why would the American Massage Therapy Association voluntarily give up the ability to supervise the standards for training within its own profession?  A profession that believes in itself strives to keep control of educational standards and to regulate itself.  It doesn’t give that power away to outside organizations.  How did it get like this?

After long observation, one gets the impression that massage therapy, sadly, doesn’t really believe in itself.  It’s as if the profession lacks the confidence to take control of its own regulations, to identify and promote its best and brightest, and to let go of its clingy dependence on “alternative medicine.”

Massage therapy is terrific.  It requires no magical thinking to make sense of how it works.  It is safe.  It feels good.  People love it.  It works.  And it is time for massage therapy to believe in itself.

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